24 February 2023

Bluff Yorkshireman Sir Bernard delivered precise message of Thatcherism

24 February 2023

Sir Bernard Ingham was Margaret Thatcher writ large.

She would not have been half the woman she was without this burly, rumbustious and lumbering Yorkshireman, her press secretary for almost her full term in Downing Street, to spell out in forthright, sometimes aggressive words but always with uncanny precision, the message she wanted the world to hear.

There was nothing of the suave, silver-tongued diplomat’s courtly finesse about Sir Bernard. Nor yet was there about Baroness Thatcher – and that was almost certainly the reason for the undercurrent of antipathy between the Foreign Office and 10 Downing Street.

He always spoke the gritty, direct and rugged language that he learned in his beloved Hebden Bridge. It was straight and the message was constant. Whatever the occasion, whoever the guest, he – like her – did not change his tune.

That was the strength of both of them. Their listeners knew that everyone was getting the same message.

But the prime minister was not endowed with Sir Bernard’s gift to turn a felicitous phrase. Even so, when you listened to Baroness Thatcher belting the Opposition in the House of Commons, his aficionados had no difficulty in discerning that his guiding hand was not far away.

His formidable presence and indomitable style had spread the myth that he exercised more power in Britain than anyone except – and then arguably – the prime minister herself.

Some Labour MPs treated him with more hostility and regarded him with far greater suspicion even than they did Baroness Thatcher herself. In the minds of some of them, Sir Bernard was an omnipotent ogre ruling over them with a malignant eye.

Critical questions about the “power” he was supposed to wield, were regularly asked in the House of Commons. He was often accused of spreading subversive stories about ministers who were, for the time being, out of favour with the prime minister. But they were wrong.

Bernard Ingham was born on June 21 1932 and educated at Hebden Bridge Grammar School. He began working as a journalist on the Hebden Bridge Times at 16, and moved to the Yorkshire Post, and The Guardian, before becoming a Whitehall press officer. He always felt uncomfortable as a journalist on the outside looking in and wanted to be on the inside track himself.

His pedigree was not what one would expect of a man who embodied high Thatcherism. In Leeds, he once unsuccessfully stood as a Labour candidate in a local election.

One of his first ministerial “clients” was Barbara Castle at the Department of Employment, a politician for whom he continued to have enormous regard.

But she wrote – not unkindly – in her diary of May, 1968: “I tried to make progress with Bernard Ingham’s rough redraft of my speech with very little success.

“I wouldn’t say I have got myself a Kennedy-type speech-writer yet. However, he is still very new, poor man.”

But this particular “poor man” in whom the virtues of hard work were instilled in childhood days, spent the next decade transforming himself into probably the most professional press officer Whitehall had ever seen.

He never lost the roughness and never acquired the polish, an attribute which invariably inspires suspicion in those who possess it. There was also no semblance of pomposity in his brash make-up. He used to tell a story about the day when The Guardian sent him to cover a pit strike.

“Driving up to the picket line in an old banger, held together with string, and wearing corduroys and a well-worn sports jacket with a copy of my newspaper sticking prominently out of the pocket I was greeted by the chief picket saying: ‘Watch it, lads, here comes t’capitalist Press’.”

He also worked for Tony Benn, when energy secretary. In 1979, he temporarily left press relations to become an under-secretary working on the energy “Save It” project.

But he was snapped up by Baroness Thatcher, then six months into office. It was an unerring choice. From that day, he shadowed the prime minister across the globe, assiduously spreading her message to all who listened.

He inspired in his Downing Street staff loyalty bordering on devotion. His press officers worked uncomplaining day and night, seven days a week. Yet they all bitterly missed the excitement of being at the centre when they returned to the quieter, cushier surroundings of their original departments.

Sometimes he was astonished at the illusion of power that was attributed to him, and accusations of news management.

He said once: “If by news management you mean I try to avoid the government coming out with five major announcements on the same day, I plead guilty. I only wish I was as sophisticated and devilishly clever, as Machiavellian as some make out.”

Indeed, his close colleagues never shared the common view there was a satanic plot afoot when he once privately described the then out-of-favour John Biffen as a “semi-detached” member of the Cabinet. They merely believed he was rather proud of the neat phrase he had coined.

Sir Bernard was the volcano that exploded and erupted like Vesuvius and then was dormant. One minute he would bellow down the telephone at someone who had upset him. It was, however, quickly out of his system. There were no grudges borne.

But his fierce loyalty for Yorkshire – in particular Halifax – remained unabated. It was exemplified by an incident when he was travelling on a train to Manchester.

When it passed Hebden Bridge, Sir Bernard surprised his companions by insisting: “Lower the windows, take a good sniff of that air, because you are nearer to Heaven now than you ever will be on earth.”

The man was as blunt, bluff and as lacking in subterfuge and wile as his regular “bunkums”, “balderdashes” and “dammits” – the trade marks of a very pugnacious but generous man – would suggest.

His retirement coincided with Baroness Thatcher’s removal from office. He was awarded a knighthood in her resignation honours.

After retiring, he wrote a book – Kill The Messenger – about his life in Downing Street and beyond. He was also a regular newspaper columnist, after-dinner speaker, TV pundit, and lecturer on cruise liners, and he continued to file a column for the Yorkshire Post until as recently as last month.

He was a bitter enemy of “spin”, and in 2003 published a book entitled The Wages Of Spin in which he lambasted those who indulged themselves in this “black art”. He always insisted he was not a spin doctor, but a Government press officer pure and simple.

In 1993, he successfully “arrested” a subsequently convicted fare dodger on the London Underground.

Sir Bernard was married to Nancy, whom he met when she was a policewoman in Halifax, for 60 years. She died in 2017 and he is survived by his journalist son John, two grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

The best videos delivered daily

Watch the stories that matter, right from your inbox