The lioness in winter

She still moves among the trappings of power, though now far away from its reality. In public, her constant refrain is betrayal - of both her and her `legacy'. Retirement for Lady Thatcher has brought not rest, but only further battles
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The Independent Culture
This week, while most politicians headed for the Commons to debate the anti-terrorism Bill, Margaret Thatcher's dark blue Jag could be found heading in an entirely different direction along London's North Circular. If there is a hell - and many believe that Lady Thatcher might know a thing or two about how to create such a place - then the North Circular is certainly part of its integrated transport system. In fact, it may be one of the few places in Britain with more noise, dirt and stupid stunts than Parliament. Hardly surprising, then, that the Lady seemed remarkably relaxed as she arrived, resplendent in a Wizard of Oz green coat-dress, at the Nissan dealership, just opposite the World of Leather superstore.

The place was in a state of high excitement. A tea-table had been set up in front of a violently turquoise convertible. Seth, the man who valets the cars, was everywhere with his video-camera. About 30 people were on hand to watch as Lady Thatcher handed over the keys to a new Motability Scheme car-owner to mark the charity's 21st year. The whole thing took an hour and Lady Thatcher was a total professional throughout. If she would rather have been elsewhere, you would never have known it. The woman who commands a reputed pounds 35,000 per speech abroad (though not in Britain) was doing this one for free, because she is a patron and has been for decades. Everyone was smiling except for two Nissan customers who had fled to the coffee room. John and Lily Alford had come by to pick up their brand-new Micra, only to find their car dealership in the grip of the Iron Lady. Didn't they want to meet her? John looked incredulous. "No! It took us 10 years to get rid of That Woman."

She will always be That Woman to most Britons. When I told people I was going to see Mrs Thatcher, there were two reactions. "How can you stand to be in the same room? Evil woman!" said one camp. "So what does she look like?" asked another. "What is she doing these days anyway?"

They may stop for a moment to discuss the interview that appeared last week in Saga magazine, in which Lady Thatcher reveals an ongoing bitterness against the men who betrayed her, her sadness at rarely seeing her grandchildren and the fact that she does her own ironing. (Spot the truly unbelievable statement.) But surely the leader who not so long ago was the most powerful woman in the world should engender something beyond revulsion and mild curiosity in her own country? In America, former presidents (even falling- down ones such as Gerald Ford) are treated with utmost respect as they organise their libraries and beaver away at their memoirs. They are always called "Mr President", never That Man. No such respect here for a Lioness in Winter.

She is adored in the States, often to the point of embarrassment. Take this, from a speech by Congressman Dick Armey from Texas. "When you think of freedom, what comes to mind? I think of the Liberty Bell. I think of President Reagan's speech at the Berlin Wall. And I think of Lady Thatcher," he says. "Lady Thatcher has left an indelible mark on virtually all areas of international policy. Her extraordinary political vision and self- confidence, as well as her profoundly nationalistic approach to foreign policy, have prompted comparisons with Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Elizabeth I and Victoria."

You can see why her favourite seat these days is on board a transatlantic aircraft. This year she will go there on seven speaking tours. (Her next one is scheduled right after her upcoming jaunt round Croatia.) This is good not only for her ego but, with each one earning her tens of thousands of pounds, also for her bank account. When asked what she had been up to recently, she replied: "I've made quite a lot of money." And spent it, too. Much goes to help the cause of freedom in central and eastern Europe through the Thatcher Foundation (which is a company, not a charity) and to endowing the archives she is sending to Cambridge. In addition, she is setting up something called the Chair of Enterprise Studies at that university. Oxford, which refused to give her an honorary degree, is not mentioned.

In person, she is much smaller and less plasticky than expected. On television she wears that terrifying lacquered, teased-up hair helmet (a style that seems to be favoured by other women of true power, such as the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright) but, for the North Circular, the hair was much calmer and in the realm of the believable. Her teeth, so infamously painful to engineer, looked good. She wafted a bit, smelling old-fashioned and talcum-powdery, and her conversation veered between chatty and bossy. One moment she was revealing her recipe for spag bol, the next telling the photographer exactly how to take her picture. In one dicey moment, she was separated from her black patent alligator handbag. "You're removing my trademark," she said. The handbag was back in hand within nanoseconds.

Such a person, for all her recipes, cannot be lovable. While she definitely has the human touch for the purposes of the odd trip to the North Circular, she remains separate from her party, the people of Britain and also her own family.

This separateness, the overriding theme of her recent interviews, is the theme of her career and perhaps her life. She is 72 years old, and the first woman prime minister has now been the first woman ex-prime minister for some years. Yet she is still searching for her role and, though she would hate the thought, the reason why it is so difficult is probably the fact that she is a woman. She wants to be an international stateswoman, but there is no such word. She also remains a true believer and, as such, seems as if she is permanently playing a tribute album to herself. She has long been a caricature, but has now become the Gerald Scarfe version. And still no one really knows what to do with her.

She loves to drop domestic details into interviews, but remains completely work-oriented. She may, in fact, make Denis his breakfast of an egg or bacon and tomato ("grilled, never fried") but then she is out through the front door of her Belgravia home and in through the back door of her nearby office at 36 Chesham Place. Here, at last, is a piece of the past. With its floor-to-ceiling curtains, revolving globe of the world and huge desk, the place is not unlike a certain other office. She has a staff of five or six and works all day, every day she can. Rumours of her drinking, always rife, continue. But does she drink any more whisky than most other (male) politicians? Some say she is losing it. At one recent prizegiving she is said to have worked herself round the greeting- line, only to turn back and start again at the beginning, as if appearing in some musical farce. Others talk of "getting stuck" with her at parties. "She is becoming a bit of a old bat," said one onlooker.

Politics remain her passion. "Her idea of relaxing remains a good political argument," said a friend. But the Tory party does not want to argue with this woman. And it doesn't have to. Unlike most other leaders, she left the Commons as quickly as possible. She appears at party conferences and always makes headlines (last year by covering up the multicoloured tails of British Airway planes) though her comments are hardly constructive.

Take her version of her downfall - a subject that preoccupies her. "She doesn't get up in the morning gnashing her teeth about it, but she is bitter," said one. That much is obvious from her almost petulant description of the events that took place while she was in Paris in November 1990. "It was just about the most cruel thing that could have happened because I had to meet all my colleagues at the conference and go on to a dinner at the Palace of Versailles. I must say, President Bush and Barbara, in particular were absolutely marvellous," she told Saga. "I was stunned by the results of the ballot, of course I was... How did I feel inside myself? Inside myself, I felt precious little of some people in the party."

Nor, evidently, has that changed much. "I was lucky. I had 11 and a half years. I got things really right. The Conservative Party had gone left for a long time - a soft left - and we as a government brought it back to true Conservatism. I left with a majority of 100. John Major managed to hold it, and then we had an election and the greatest defeat the party has ever known. It was catastrophic for me because I'd got things right, and that defeat stemmed from that incident."

Could it be that Lady Thatcher is turning into the doppelganger of the man she hates the most, Edward Heath?

And what are we to make about her comments about her own family? Mrs Thatcher's views on motherhood always did seem moored in the land of apple pie and the only part of her version of grandmotherhood that is recognisable is her sadness that it has all turned out so badly.

"Let me put it this way. When your mother is Prime Minister, children are very much in the limelight and the press are very tough on them. So much so that I thought it better for them to leave the country. And they're both still away." She rarely sees her grandchildren, who have dual citizenship. "One day they will have to make a decision as the baronetcy goes down the line," notes their grandmother.

Then she says: "Look, you can't have everything. It has been the greatest privilege being Prime Minister of my country and having many friends all interested in the same subjects. Yes, I wish I saw more of my children. We don't have Sunday lunch together. We don't go on holiday, skiing any more. Our grandma used to live with us - my mother's mother - so Granny was always about, and grannies are a great asset. My grandmother used to tell me what life was like in her young days, and I used to sit at her feet fascinated. But I can't regret. And I haven't lost my children. They have to live their lives, I took a different life."

Her daughter Carol responded to this in the pages of the Daily Mail ("Is this any way for a family to communicate?) and was clearly not enamoured with the idea of a cosy extended family with Grandma Baroness in situ. "No one has all the qualities needed to scale the greasy political pole, and also those that make you want to take your kids cycling and picnicking, and read them bedtime stories." She then tells her mother and us (the readers) that she is planning a trip to see her parents. "I fully admit that I'm no model daughter, but now I know I'm missed I shall try harder."

Carol Thatcher signs off this "letter" not with a "Love" or a "With love", but with a "Yours". Evidently a "Yours truly" would not do either. It makes you see why the North Circular (never mind America) can seem such a friendly sort of place.