Detail from a page of doodles by President Ronald Reagan, kept by Margaret Thatcher

Thousands of papers relating to perhaps the toughest year of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership are to be opened to the public at Cambridge University’s Churchill Archives Centre from Monday.

This task, to which I have set my hand is the most absorbing and fascinating in the world. But sometimes it is lonely as one struggles to take the right decision.

Margaret Thatcher

More than 35,000 of Thatcher’s personal papers from 1981, a year of internal Tory splits, two cabinet reshuffles and the meteoric rise of the SDP - as well as spiralling unemployment and rioting across the UK - lay bare the politics and back-office story of Number 10 at a time when senior Conservatives worried about the very future of the party.

In conjunction with the Margaret Thatcher Archive Trust, the papers have also been digitised and put online via the Margaret Thatcher Foundation website.

Chris Collins, of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, said: “This was the grimmest year of her tenure as Prime Minister. Politics in 1981 was dominated by the poor state of the economy; unemployment was rising (passing three million in January 1982) and continued rising for the next four years.

“In polling terms, support for the Conservatives dipped as low as a desperately poor 16pc. Thatcher’s net approval rating stood at minus 41 (the Government was minus 47). David Steel, by contrast, was plus 48.”

The papers also reveal the difficult start to relations with the Reagan administration in America as senior Republicans and White House officials moved to distance themselves from the policies of the UK Government; the White House Press Secretary going as far as to hand the press a two-page document outlining the economic differences between Thatcherism and Reaganism.

However, the President himself made no direct criticism - even if he did not stop his juniors from doing so - and the foundations of that most famous transatlantic relationship can be seen to strengthen with each meeting between the two leaders. Thatcher even kept a page of doodles drawn by Reagan at the Ottowa G7 meeting.

Leading the country at a time of crisis could be a lonely business. Hints of the possible strains on the Prime Minister are revealed in a letter to someone who had sent her a cashmere rug as a gift (Thatcher was unusually engaged in personally replying to as much correspondence as she could).

In her letter of thanks, now kept in the strong rooms at the Archives Centre, she said: “It (the gift) came at a difficult time just when I needed a little thoughtfulness and kindliness. This task, to which I have set my hand is the most absorbing and fascinating in the world. But sometimes it is lonely as one struggles to take the right decision.”

The archives also reveal a secret meeting between Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch at Chequers on January 4, 1981, where he told her about his bid to buy The Times newspaper and outlined his future plans, including his aim to introduce new technologies and reduce staff numbers.

This meeting may come as a surprise to many as the official history of The Times specifically denies there was any direct contact between the two during this period, footnoting Rupert Murdoch as the source of the information.

But it is the difficulty of sailing Government through 1981’s rough seas that emerges as the key theme from this year’s papers, released simultaneously at Churchill alongside those of fellow Conservatives Sir Bernard Ingham, Sir Adam Ridley, Sir Alan Walters and Sir John Hoskyns.

The archives reveal some brutal in-fighting at Number 10 and beyond as party divisions led, unusually, to two reshuffles in a single year. Elsewhere, a key party donor is seen to express his deepest discontent while the chairman of the powerful 1922 Committee told Thatcher to her face of his unease with Government monetary policy.

Plans for a Party Political Broadcast in July, only days after the riots in Toxteth, also saw the head of the Policy Unit, John Hoskyns, scathingly damn the script by John Selwyn Gummer as “the worst example of platitude-laden undeliverable clichés and nonsense I have ever seen…it is terrible.”

That year’s Budget went down badly both in the party and among the public – opinion polls showing it to be the most unpopular for 30 years with only 24pc of the public believing Chancellor Geoffrey Howe to be doing a good job. Some 73pc thought the budget unfair (22pc believing it fair – the previous low being 33pc in 1961). And with strong echoes of today, by far the most unpopular aspect of the Budget was an increase in petrol duty – of which a massive 87 per cent disapproved.

Following a purge of the Cabinet ‘wets’ in the September reshuffle, Thatcher’s 1981 Government was then faced with a possible wets rebellion and the startling rise of the SDP. The Crosby by-election of November 13 brought the SDP its first MP, Shirley Williams. Overturning a huge Conservative majority of 19,000, Williams’ victory led Tory Central Office to believe it was staring into the abyss.

The author of a Research Department document named ‘The Way Ahead’ could see none and declared: “This new phenomenon (the Alliance)…threatens to sweep the Conservative Party into a small minority position, worse than anything we have experienced for over 100 years.”

And the archives also reveal that long before Meryl Streep played The Iron Lady, Thatcher agreed to attend a production of the farce Anyone for Denis, although the papers suggest she may have done so through gritted teeth, writing ‘NO’ no less than five times on a memo detailing the arrangements. Thatcher was played on that occasion by Angela Thorne with John Wells at Denis.

Finally, approaching the end of a fraught 1981, Thatcher’s Christmas card list was finalised with recipients including Fidel Castro, Colonel Gaddafi, General Pinochet, Ken Livingstone and Kim Il-Sung.

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