Have handbag, will travel

She still has admirers across the globe, and plenty of money. But has Lady Thatcher sold herself short? Paul Vallely reports

From time to time we remember her, the Iron Lady. She pops into the news when she collapses while speaking to businessmen in some far- flung spot, or when some commentator notices a phrase in one of those foreign addresses that resonates against the policies of her successors. But these days she pops out of the news again almost as quickly.

This month she is back with the launch of volume two of her memoirs. But what will she do when the roar of the publicist dies away and the political journalists move on to some fresher Tory split?

It is almost five years since Margaret Thatcher was deposed by her fellows who had decided that the most energetic prime minister in modern memory had become an electoral liability. And yet, according to her friends, as she approaches the age of 70 those energies remain undiminished. So where has she been directing them since she left office - just what does she do all day?

"When she left Downing Street she didn't know what was going on," says one of those closest to her in the first days of her banishment. "She was like a walking zombie - there was that degree of trauma. It was as if her life had been taken away from her, and not just her purpose, but the life support system which sustains senior politicians who come to forget the nuts and bolts of ordinary life. She had no other interests. It's impossible to overstate how disorientated she was. At times it was as if she thought it all just a bad dream from which she would wake. It was a major adjustment period."

It lasted almost two years, and was exacerbated, many of her circle feel, by the presence of her son, Mark. "He was a bad influence - his judgement is poor," says one of her circle. "But she relied on him. She's blind to his weak spots. She's not just a mother, she's a mother with a guilt complex, and he filled the terrible vacuum. So no one would say to her: your son is useless.''

She left the House of Commons as soon as she could, with the encouragement of her loyalists. "The worry was that as long as she stayed there, she'd have the dream that one day she could return," says one. It was only with the publication of the first volume of her memoirs three years later that some kind of catharsis seemed fully to take effect.

The idea of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation took shape within the very first few days in the wilderness. She rejected the idea of taking some top job - the post of secretary-general of the United Nations was mentioned privately to her - and opted for establishing a body that would propagate her free enterprise ideology throughout the world, particularly in Eastern Europe and the Far East. It has not worked out as she might have hoped.

The foundation is run from a Victorian building with a neo-Georgian facade in Belgravia. There, with a staff of nine, Baroness Thatcher has attempted to replicate the apparatus that supported her at No 10. "She has never stopped working 19 hours a day," says her friend Lord Archer. "She has nothing else in life. She can't stop, she doesn't know how to. She starts at 6am and they have to drag her to bed at night." "Work is a drug for her," said one insider, "and she's a junkie."

The office in Chesham Place is the court of an exiled prince. Among the regular visitors are Lord McAlpine, the former Tory treasurer; Sir Charles Powell, her one-time private secretary and chief foreign affairs adviser; Sir Bernard Ingham, her long-serving news manager; and Sir Tim Bell, her former public relations adviser. Lords Parkinson, Tebbit and Forte are often seen, as, more discreetly, are the Cabinet ministers Portillo, Lilley and Redwood, and a number of more junior ministers.

But it is also the admin centre of a considerable Thatcher industry, from which the ex-prime minister prepares for the scores of highly paid speaking engagements at private luncheons and dinners throughout the UK. These are now the routine of her daily existence, along with work for the charities she supports. "About a quarter of her year is spent on speaking engagements abroad and she spends a lot of time preparing for them," says one of her private staff. "A trip to the US will involve eight or nine speeches, which she writes mostly herself, though she's constantly in search of new ideas from others."

Today, Lady Thatcher is in Japan, yet again, on an eight-day trip meeting business leaders and politicians, attending dinners, giving three big speeches, meeting the PM, and receiving from the Emperor the Cordon of the Precious Crown for services to Anglo-Japanese relations. Most of these engagements will involve lucrative fees. Whether those who flock to see her regard her as a historical curio or as a potent influence in the modern world is of little moment: they offer a politician who has felt the sting of rejection an ego-gratifying adulation.

The other advantage of concentrating on the international circuit is that it distances her from domestic affairs. No, Lady Thatcher does not approve of current Tory policies, but, her friends insist, she genuinely has no desire to intervene - she knows there is no prospect of her returning for a second stint as Churchill did - and really does believe that a leadership contest is not in the best interests of the party.

"She speculates in the same way everybody does, but she doesn't want to consider the possibility of them losing. She thinks that it's still possible for them to win if the Government sorts itself out," says one close friend. In any case, says a loyalist MP, she sees no alternative. "She has no time for Heseltine; she thinks Clarke is a robust, street- fighting politician, but she's not convinced about his politics; she likes Portillo, but she doesn't think he's a serious contender at this stage. She doesn't really consider anybody else."

Two other factors have dominated her life in recent times. Her health has been affected by problems with her teeth, which have always been troublesome. "She's lost weight and looks older, though mentally she is undiminished," says one of the foundation's trustees, Lord Harris of High Cross. She is fit enough to be as demanding as ever, according to another associate: "She's on top form - I saw her last week and got handbagged for 15 minutes." But she is also more relaxed: often she leaves her elegant Belgravia home and, accompanied by her husband Denis, spends weekends in the country houses of old friends, something she could never do when she was prime minister. She has even been seen visiting art galleries in Venice and Barcelona with Alistair McAlpine.

The second burden has been more troublesome: critical press coverage of the business activities of Mark, whose marriage has been under strain and who is the subject of an action alleging racketeering and fraud in the United States. "You can't brush it off when your son's under this sort of attack," says Lord McAlpine. "She has found it all deeply distressing."

Deep down, it must irk her too that the foundation has not been the success that she hoped it would be. Donations from the rich and powerful have not rolled in and she has had to subsidise it from her personal earnings. Nor has it dispensed the wide range of grants which were expected. "The truth is that it's quite hard to spend it properly," says Lord McAlpine, a trustee. "We all went into the period after the Berlin Wall coming down with rose-tinted spectacles, but it's hard to find organisations in which you can have any confidence in Poland, Czechoslovakia or Russia."

One of those close to her at the inception of the scheme says, "The plan was twofold: to create a flagship for taking Thatcherite ideas into Eastern Europe, and to allow her to remain a public figure who had real influence on political thought. She's failed in both.

"The foundation is not a real force. She has established no salon of new political thinkers, nor has she established herself as an elder statesman, making measured statements that influence world leaders. The position she has adopted on Bosnia is maverick; it's one the world does not want to hear. Instead she's gone for the Rolls at the airport and the motorcade.

"It's disappointing. She hasn't achieved as much after leaving office as she could have. If she was happy, that would be OK, but I suspect she isn't."

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