The Foreign Secretaries (25): Francis Pym

pymnFrancis Pym, 1982-83

Conservative, under Thatcher

Francis Pym was a Conservative from another age, who found himself instinctively out of sync with the dogmas and confrontational style of Thatcherism. He came from an impeccably establishment background: his grandfather had been a bishop and his father was a Conservative MP. After Eton, his time at Magdalene College, Cambridge, was interrupted by war. He was at El Alemain, was twice mentioned in dispatches, and won the military cross.

Going into business, the ‘fifties saw him gravitate towards politics. He entered the Commons in 1961. A year later, he was in the whip’s office. When Heath won in 1970, Pym was chief whip.  Heath had a comfortable majority, but nonetheless came to value Pym’s absolute loyalty, cool head and sound advice. This was most evident when it came to the trickiest vote the government faced, over Europe.  It was Pym that suggested making it a free vote: Pym’s judgement was correct, and Heath won (you can read about it here).

Pym was briefly sent to Northern Ireland, and after Heath lost he was in the shadow cabinet. He supported Whitelaw in the leadership election, but Thatcher kept him on. When Thatcher won in 1979, he was sent to Defence, where he resisted cuts, and earned Thatcher’s ire. Pym (below, with Thatcher and Lord Carrington) was moved on in the 1981 purge of the Wets (the old Heathites), when Thatcher reshuffled her cabinet to create one in her own image. He survived, but now as leader of the House and chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, then as lord president of the council.

carring 3

Then came the Falkland’s. When Carrington resigned, and Thatcher was so very vulnerable, Pym was a safe pair of hands. Soon, though, Thatcher’s relationship with her new foreign secretary was problematic. In part, that was his fault: Pym found Thatcher difficult. He was used to dealing with men of his own kind, and shied away from confronting a woman. Thatcher never quite trusted him. She knew he was not ‘one of us’, a full-blown Thatcherite, and he had been a Heath supporter. He had even been spoken of as a rival. Having purged the Wets, she had now promoted one.


As Britain prepared for war, Pym, as was his role, worked towards a possible diplomatic solution. He came back from Washington, having privately agreed with the American secretary of state, Alexander Haig, that war had to be avoided. In her memoirs, Thatcher described the proposed deal Pym came back with as a ‘conditional surrender’ that would have denied the Falklanders their freedom and Britain its honour. Thatcher made her differences with Pym public. War it was: Pym was out on a limb.

Thatcher won, and Pym’s goose was pretty well cooked. As it was, the 1983 election campaign saw him make sure of it. The Conservatives were a long way ahead in the polls and Labour were floundering. Pym stated that landslides did not make for good government. A furious Thatcher’s suspicions were confirmed: he was anything but ‘one of us’. When she duly won that landslide, she sacked him. He went to the Lords in 1987.

Pym’s short tenure in the Foreign Office saw him quickly at odds with a prime minister who distrusted him, and his office. His politics were those of an earlier, more measured and one nation Toryism. As one of them, he was never fully one of hers.

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