Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, the most senior civil servant in Margaret Thatcher’s Government and confidant to three prime ministers, has died aged 93.
The life peer had a long and distinguished career in the civil service in the Treasury and the Home Office before serving as Cabinet Secretary under Thatcher.
But the Eton and Oxford-educated adviser was perhaps best known for being ‘economical with the truth’, a phrase by Edmund Burke which he brought into popular usage during the infamous Spycatcher trial.
Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, the most senior civil servant in Margaret Thatcher’s Government and confidant to three prime ministers, has died aged 93
Armstrong had attempted to block the memoirs of the disgruntled former MI5 officer Peter Wright from being published in Australia.
The book Spycatcher, which detailed Wright’s unmasking of a Soviet mole and MI5 and MI6 plots and hierarchies, proved scandalous and the British government sought to block its publication in order to prevent other former officers doing the same.
The book was banned in England but the Government was unable to stop its publication in Australia, with Wright now residing in Tasmania.
This led to a trial, with Wright’s publisher being represented by Malcolm Turnbull, the future Prime Minister for Australia, while Armstrong, as Thatcher’s security and intelligence adviser, sent to make the case for the UK.
The adviser was best known for being ‘economical with the truth’, a phrase by Edmund Burke which he brought into popular usage during the infamous Spycatcher trial. Pictured leaving Heathrow for Australia for the trial
Likened to ‘Sir Humphrey’ from Yes Minister, the trial proved a humiliation for Armstrong who was ill at ease with the aggressive questioning from Turnbull.
Having been poorly briefed, Armstrong was evasive and ambiguous, and was widely ridiculed in the press.
It led to the famous exchange between Turnbull and Armstrong, where when questioned about whether a letter contained a lie, he said it was instead being ‘economical with the truth’.
Ultimately, Turnbull won the case and the trial’s notoriety helped the book become a bestseller.
When he returned to the UK, Armstrong swung his briefcase at photographers at the airport.
When he returned to the UK, Armstrong swung his briefcase at photographers at the airport
Armstrong later described the experience as ‘the most disagreeable time’, and expressed displeasure at being asked to represent the Government, preferring instead to work in the shadows.
Thatcher and Armstrong formed a close partnership despite their ideological differences, with the civil servant pro-European and close to Ted Heath, whom he served as principal private secretary from 1970.
He sat at Thatcher’s right-hand side in cabinet meetings, produced the minutes and was closely involved in her reshuffles.
Armstrong was the first cabinet secretary to serve one prime minister and is regarded as one of the best.
In his later years after his retirement in 1987, Armstrong became embroiled in an alleged cover up of apparent child abuse in the Conservative Party.
Armstrong sat at Thatcher’s right-hand side in cabinet meetings, produced the minutes and was closely involved in her reshuffles
Armstrong was warned by the security services in 1986 that an MP had ‘a penchant for small boys’ but no action was taken.
In 2015, Armstrong, who refused to name the MP involved, insisted the allegations were just ‘shadows of a rumour’.
He said he believed the decision not to investigate the paedophile claims was ‘correct at the time’, attracting criticism.
Armstrong is survived by his second wife Mary Carlow and his two daughters Jane and Teresa.