How Bruce terrified the Iron Lady


Bruce Kemble makes a point to Mrs Thatcher who has written her best wishes on the pic


Did Bruce Kemble, the legendary Express education correspondent and Father of the NuJ Chapel in  the 1970s, rant so fiercely at Mrs Thatcher in her first senior job as a politician that the Iron Lady was forced to take a dance to calm her nerves?

That was the claim of a recent Daily Telegraph obituary for its former education correspondent John Izbicki, one of Bruce’s greatest rivals, who died in November at the age of 89.

Izbicki recalled in his memoirs that Mrs Thatcher, became Education Secretary in Edward Heath’s government in June 1970, following unexpected Tory success in a general election of that month. She was under pressure from the start, with many plans to turn secondary schools into comprehensives so far advanced — by previous Education Secretary Shirley Williams —that local authorities were unable or unwilling to turn them back.

Though Mrs Thatcher actually ‘saved’ 94 grammar schools by the time she left office in March 1974, she was forced to wave through 3,300 comprehensive schemes during that time.

Mrs T faced a baptism of fire. The Sun dubbed her The Most Unpopular Woman in Britain. In the Express, Jean Rook wrote: “Show some spunk, Margaret! Remember flaming Barbara Castle when she came back at critics like a blow lamp.”

When Mrs T arrived at train terminals, students banged on her windows. With some trepidation, she went to give a keynote speech to a National Association of Head Teachers conference in Scarborough with Kemble, pictured left, and his fellow education correspondents poised to hear her message.

The Telegraph claims: “Because other proceedings had gone on for so long, Mrs Thatcher did not get to her feet until 11pm, by which time most of those on the press table were thoroughly drunk.

“Understandably, given the late hour, Mrs Thatcher jettisoned large chunks of the prepared text which had been circulated in advance, to the fury of the education correspondent of the Daily Express who had led on the deleted passages and refused to be mollified by her assurance that she stood by the unspoken passages.”

Rushing gallantly to Mrs Thatcher’s rescue and seeing a need to defuse the situation, John Izbicki asked her if she would like to dance. “Oh yes,” she replied, “I would love to”.

After the dance, a slow foxtrot, and “seeing that the Express man was still glowering”, Izbicki took her outside, promising a wonderful view over the cliffs.

“Oh, this is absolutely heavenly.  Thank you so much for showing me this, John,” he recalled her saying. “I may call you John?”

The Telegraph claims their man was such a hit with Maggie that she once interrupted her husband over breakfast with the words: “Shut up, Denis.  I am reading John Izbicki!”

Can the story be true? Did Mrs Thatcher really give big speeches and dance with journalists afterwards? Izbicki, whose family caught one of the last trains out of Germany to Flushing, and the life-saving voyage to Britain, only days before the Germans invaded Poland and closed their borders, was famous for his anecdotes and sometimes his speeches on behalf of the Press pack. The older he got, the more vivid the anecdotes became.

Bruce’s fury, because the speech he had reported earlier in the evening was not actually delivered,  is possible. His secretary, the formidable Yolande Brook (of Chapman Pincher fame) clipped relevant cuttings on education in every other paper each morning, and Bruce sometimes used a ruler to compare column inches achieved against his rivals, Izbicki included.

Another familiar Kemble target in those distant was Jocelyn Stevens, then managing director of Express Newspapers. Bruce frequently commanded Chapel meetings to stay in session — indefinitely — until questions sent “upstairs” to Stevens had produced satisfactory answers.

If the Telegraph story is true, Mrs T  was truly terrified by Kemble a decade or so before she was facing down General Galtieri, Gorbachev and Arthur Scargill! Bruce’s education beat eventually passed to Sue Reid, who became his wife and is now the leading reporter for the Daily Mail covering the cross-Channel migrant crisis. Their son Harry is cruise correspondent of the Travel Trade Gazette.

*Bruce Kemble died in 2012 aged 73 after suffering a stroke

© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre