Public relations executive who worked as a close adviser to Margaret Thatcher

Born: October 18 1941;

Died: August 25 2019

Lord Tim Bell, who has died aged 77, was an exceptional operator in the fields of advertising and public relations and, after employing their techniques in the service of the Conservative Party, an influential advisor to Margaret Thatcher.

Polished, persuasive and, according to one anecdote (which he may well have circulated himself), so charming that dogs would cross the street to be stroked by him, Bell was instrumental in creating Mrs Thatcher’s public image, in the growth of the Saatchi & Saatchi into one of the world’s largest ad firms, and their campaigns which brought the Tories to power in 1979. His own company, Bell Pottinger, became the largest UK-based PR firm; during the government of Tony Blair (who gave him a peerage), he advised Michael Howard and helped run the successful campaign to keep Britain out of the euro.

But Bell was also castigated for his readiness to work for and defend the likes of questionable regimes such as Sri Lanka, Bahrain, Brunei, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, figures such as Augusto Pinochet, the former dictator of Chile, and the Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko. A racist campaign for a South African company led to his firm’s expulsion from the Public Relations and Communications Association for unethical behaviour – and a memorably disastrous television interview with Kirsty Wark in which Bell’s mobile phone kept ringing and he was caught out several times in lies.

There was no shortage of personal controversies, either. In 1977 he was convicted of indecency for masturbating at his bathroom window in Hampstead, in full view of passing women; he was an enthusiastic cocaine user for much of the 1980s, and he was thought by many not only to employ sharp practice on behalf of his clients, but rapidly to disown responsibility for them when his damage-limitation strategies failed to pay off.

Timothy John Leigh Bell was born in Southgate, north London, on October 18 1941, the son of Arthur Bell, a salesman, and his Australian wife Greta. Bell’s father left the family when Tim was five and moved to South Africa; Greta married Peter Pettit, who had been her divorce solicitor and became Conservative Mayor of St Marylebone. Tim was educated at Queen Elizabeth Grammar in Barnet and left after the sixth form to join ABC Television in 1959. During the 1960s, when he played modern jazz trumpet and rugby, he worked for a succession of advertising firms as a media buyer before joining Saatchi and Saatchi, which then had fewer than a dozen employees, as managing director in 1970.

His ability to charm money out of clients, combined with the creative input of Charles Saatchi and the financial acumen of his brother Maurice, rapidly grew the firm; as well as the Conservative Party, they added British Airways, Trust House Forte and Sainsbury’s to their roster.

Though not himself responsible for the slogan “Labour isn’t Working”, which had such an impact on the 1979 General Election, Bell was instrumental, with Gordon Reece of Conservative Central Office, in helping to shape Margaret Thatcher’s image. She had to be coached in softening her appearance, presenting herself to the media as “an ordinary housewife” and even in how to sit for television interviews. One memorable tape had her hypnotically repeating the phrase “enough is enough” until she got the intonation right – “like a Hindu mantra”, as the political sketchwriter Simon Hoggart described it.

The spectacular success of this work made Bell a favoured confidant of the new Prime Minister, as well as adding hugely to the client list and coffers of Saatchi & Saatchi, but there were already many within the Tory Party (notably Norman Tebbit and Cecil Parkinson) who had begun to mistrust Bell’s racy image. His habit of being driven short distances in flash cars to expensive restaurants, where he would lunch in the window with celebrities and cabinet ministers while chain-smoking Dunhill, along with growing rumours of his cocaine use, made him (as Chris Patten later put it: “too big and too indiscreet”).

He remained personally close to Mrs Thatcher, but although a trusted personal advisor, had no official role. Nonetheless, he advised the National Coal Board during the miners’ strike, and a number of Tory cabinet ministers over personal scandals. When Saatchi & Saatchi failed to make him a partner, he left in 1985 to join, first, Lowe Howard-Spink and Bell which, after a buy-out, became Lowe Bell Communications, then Bell Communications and the Chime Group (of which Bell Pottinger was a part).

With these companies, he operated as a reputational fireman for individuals, corporations and even governments which found themselves facing flak; inevitably, with mixed success. Bell claimed there was nothing sinister or Machiavellian about such work, likening it to the advocacy and best-presentation of a case undertaken by lawyers.

In 2011, however, undercover journalists posing as representatives of the government of Uzbekistan produced a report for The Independent in which Bell Pottinger executives offered to doctor Wikipedia entries and disguise child labour violations; a buy-out of the firm from Chime followed, but Bell fell out with the new management, especially after his frank 2014 memoirs, and left in 2016. After the Oakbay scandal in South Africa, in which a company close to the president Jacob Zuma was accused of a racist campaign in which Bell Pottinger had colluded, he gave his disastrous Newnight interview with Kirsty Wark.

Bell was knighted in 1990 and raised to the peerage in 1998. He was involved in a significant amount of charity work, particularly for Comic Relief, and personally funded several other groups; perhaps the only area in which, uncharacteristically, he did not blow his own trumpet. He had suffered increasingly poor health in later years; a diagnosis of diabetes in the 1990s took him out of circulation for several years.

He married, first, Suzanne Cordran, in his 20s; they separated, and for many years his companion was Victoria Hornbrook, with whom he had a son and a daughter; after divorce from his first wife in 1985, he married her in 1988. They divorced in 2016 and he married, thirdly, Jacqueline Phillips.

Andrew McKie