Margaret Thatcher insisted on paying nearly £2,000 towards the search for her son after he went missing in the Sahara desert, amid concerns of a public backlash over taxpayers’ money being used.
Mark Thatcher went missing for six days in January 1982 during the Paris to Dakar rally, along with his French co-driver, Anne-Charlotte Verney, and their mechanic.
They were found after a search by the Algerian military. Help was also offered by the French and Mali governments, while Denis Thatcher flew to Algeria.
Records released for the first time show that Mrs Thatcher paid a total of £1,784.80 for the search operation to avoid any criticism from taxpayers.
Mark Thatcher, who had not been seen since 8 January, 1982, was rescued on 14 January. But amid relief that he had been found, private discussions between the Foreign Office and No 10 soon turned to how the cost of the operation should be covered, as journalists and MPs pursued the issue.
A letter sent to the Foreign Office on 29 January asked for the figures involved so questions could be answered, prompting a list of charges including hotel bills, air fares, telegrams, 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 made up by drinks – although the bill was later waived. A statement of Foreign and Commonwealth Office costs of the operation included accommodation for a Swiss rally team which helped with information on Mr Thatcher’s possible whereabouts, as well as telegrams and phone calls at various embassies.
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 a “number of inquiries from the public and one or two from MPs” about the expense.
A memo to the PM on 12 February reveals Mrs Thatcher made the decision to pay the extra sum herself.
In a hand-written note, Mrs Thatcher said: “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 bill for £1,784.80 – made up of slightly amended totals – was later paid by Mrs Thatcher.