Thatcher’s concern when Mark got lost in Sahara

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Margaret Thatcher insisted on paying nearly £2,000 towards the search for her son after he went missing during the Paris to Dakar car rally amid concerns of a public backlash over taxpayers’ money being used, newly-released government files reveal.

Mark Thatcher went missing in the Sahara desert for six days in January 1982, along with his French co-driver, Anne-Charlotte Verney, and their mechanic. They were eventually found after a search by the Algerian military.

Help was also offered by the French and Mali governments, while Denis Thatcher flew to Algeria himself.

Records released for the first time to the National Archives in Kew, London, show that Mrs Thatcher paid £1,784.80 for the search operation.

Mr Thatcher, who had not been seen since January 8 1982, was rescued by an Algerian military aircraft on January 14. Amid relief that he had been found, discussions between the Foreign Office and Number 10 turned to the cost of the operation, as journalists and MPs pursued the issue. A letter to the Foreign Office on January 29 asked for the figures involved so questions could be answered, prompting a list of charges including hotel bills, air fares, telegrams and phone calls and subsistence.

One document showed that bills at the Tahat Hotel in Tamanrasset for a group including Mark Thatcher, Ms Verney and Denis Thatcher exceeded 11,500 Algerian dinars — a third of it drinks — although the bill was later waived and the party was told there was nothing to pay.

In a telegram to the Foreign Office, an aide reported that the bill likely included “drinks to all and sundry after Mark Thatcher’s arrival at hotel”.

A statement of Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) costs of the operation included air fares, subsistence, accommodation for a Swiss rally team which helped with information on Mr Thatcher’s possible whereabouts, as well as telegrams and phone calls.

With the major part of the bill met by the Algerian government, the final bill for Mr Thatcher was originally to be £583.14 — with the taxpayer set to pick up the remaining £1,190.95. Private secretary John Coles said there had been “inquiries from the public and one or two from MPs” about the expense, but by paying the £583.14 they could be dealt with in a “justifiable way”.

But a memo to the PM on February 12 reveals Mrs Thatcher made the decision to pay the extra sum herself.

“In addition, there is the total cost to the taxpayer of £1,191. I think you wanted to consider the latter figure,” Mr Coles wrote.

And in a hand-written note, Mrs Thatcher added: “I must pay the £1,191. We can therefore say that no extra cost has fallen on the British taxpayer. To who do I make out the cheque? MT.”

A final £1,784.80 bill, made up of amended totals, was paid by Mrs Thatcher. In September, she paid a demand for an extra £15.16 for landing charges incurred by aircraft carrying Denis Thatcher.

The file reveals the ‘Iron Lady’s’ concern for her son. In a January 12 telegram, Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington said: “The prime minister is now most concerned, since there has been no reliable information for three days.”

The PM spoke to then US president Ronald Reagan on January 14 — minutes after a reported sighting of her son. Mr Reagan told her: “I was calling you to tell you that Nancy and I feel so deeply — you are in our thoughts and prayers, you and Denis — about Mark.”

She replied: “It’s been a long time, and we’ve had a lot of confused rumours and reports, but Denis is out there now, and the Algerians have mounted a very big search today, and we just believe — I’ve just had news two minutes ago that they believe they’ve made a hopeful sighting. We daren’t believe anything till they’ve actually found him.”