Political reporters are already complaining that Theresa May is not allowing them to ask questions as the election campaign gets under way. The following extract is from my memoir, Is Anything Happening? (Biteback, £20)
For the three weeks of the 1979 election campaign, I was one of the team of journalists on the Thatcher campaign bus. To be strictly accurate, I was on one of the two campaign buses, because we drove round the country in convoy: the candidate and her team in one bus, with the ‘reptiles’, as her husband Denis referred to us, following close behind. We got so few chances to interact with her directly that, after a week of steadily mounting frustration, the travelling press wrote her a letter, signed by all of us, begging for a chance to actually talk to her.
The first week of Thatcher’s campaign trail has been a success. Or rather it has achieved what it set out to achieve – plenty of pictures in the papers. So far, Mrs T has refused only two photographers’ requests: she does not enjoy kissing babies, and she very sensibly refused to hold a giant pair of scissors near her face. Smiling at cameras is one thing, talking to reporters is quite another. So far, we scribblers have had scarcely a ‘Good morning’ to call our own … (The Observer, 22 April 1979)
One evening, close to midnight, our wish was finally granted, and we were ushered into her hotel suite for an impromptu press conference. The main issue of the day was her party’s taxation proposals, a subject on which the Financial Times’s political correspondent Elinor Goodman, later of Channel 4 News, was both impressively knowledgeable and commendably insistent. Eventually, proceedings were brought to a close after Denis, in an audible whisper, had muttered to an aide: ‘Who is that dreadful woman?’ ...
The 1979 Conservative Party campaign was a watershed: adopting techniques imported from the US, Thatcher’s handlers understood that what mattered above all was imagery. For the first time in British politics, the interests of the TV cameras were paramount. Hence, Thatcher cuddling a calf, Thatcher in a chocolate factory, Thatcher chatting to shoppers. We take it for granted now, but in 1979, it was a novelty.