Sir Denis Thatcher dies

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Indy Politics

Sir Denis Thatcher, husband of Baroness Thatcher and her faithful consort throughout her premiership, died today in the Lister Hospital, London, a spokesman for the family said. He was 88.

The spokesman said: "It is with deep sadness that we have to announce that Sir Denis Thatcher passed away peacefully this morning in the Lister Hospital after a short illness.

"His family were with him at his bedside when he died."

Sir Denis underwent a five-hour heart transplant operation in January. He appeared to recover from this and after a spell of convalescence in a spa hotel, he travelled to South Africa to recuperate.

But, back in Britain, he felt unwell again two weeks ago and was admitted to the Royal Brompton Hospital and later transferred to the Lister Hospital where he died.

Sir Denis, who was born on 10 May 1915, was one of the great characters of British politics.

The ultimate Downing Street aide with a love of golf and the regular tincture of gin and tonic became a national institution, though he never gave interviews nor stole any of his wife's limelight.

He was always in the shadows, just two steps behind, eyes alert for trouble, watchful and protective, never dominating.

The public image of a boozy buffer - which was at odds with the truth - belied a crucial role in Margaret Thatcher's record-breaking career at Westminster.

By her own admission, the Grantham grocer's daughter would never have become Britain's first woman prime minister without the strength of their marriage.

Throughout the 16 years Margaret Thatcher was leader of the Conservative Party, he was her sheet anchor as protector, adviser and friend.

As the first male escort in No 10, he pioneered a supremely difficult role with dignity, resilience and humour.

He was shy and must often have found the public side of his duties as a political Duke of Edinburgh quite painful. But he hardly ever put a foot wrong.

Indeed, he put her right when she slipped up. Once, Mrs Thatcher told an audience how excited she was to be back in Malaysia. Denis, in the world's loudest stage whisper, informed her that she was not in Malaysia but Indonesia.

Although he readily did his duty - and did it impeccably - he preferred to travel West rather than East. Once, in a village outside Delhi, the natives adorned him with a vast pink turban.

As he walked away, this headgear wobbling perilously, like a huge jelly, he observed under his breath to those who could hear: "These blighters are trying to make me look like a bloody fool."

And when, in Goa, the electricity failed as he was trying to shave himself in a chalet, Denis emerged into the open, soap-suds still adorning his face, and surprised fellow Commonwealth leaders in adjoining chalets by bellowing out: "The buggeration factor is high and growing in this part of the world..."

Mrs Thatcher once described him as the "golden thread" running through her life - the man "who has made everything possible".

A lone and slightly comical figure on the political landscape, Sir Denis's reply to congratulations on his baronetcy was typical: "Thanks - but more important than that, I have just been elected a member of Sunningdale golf club."

The millionaire industrialist had the knack of being able to keep out of his wife's way and then materialise at the moment she needed him most.

When the crowds thronged in too close, it was Denis's elbows which saw off the shovers. This happened in Australia and Turkey. Once he reprimanded reporters for stepping on war graves.

When Mrs Thatcher hesitated in the middle of a walkabout, it was his reassuring voice heard announcing, "Right wheel dear".

In public, he nearly always kept his opinions to himself, but he was believed to have been instrumental in at least three Cabinet sackings, insisting to his wife that she had to get rid of people who were not reliable.

"Loyalty, to me, is the one quality all men must have," he once said.

But he created at least one public political flurry. He wrote back to one correspondent in critical terms about the decision to abolish the £1 note and replace it with a coin. His letter, somehow, became public and Mrs Thatcher, in China at the time, had to submit, unwillingly, to reporters' interrogation about allegations of a "family row".

Denis Thatcher, born in Lewisham on May 10, 1915, was the son of a farming family made prosperous by manufacturing sheep dip, a business his father expanded into chemicals and paint.

Educated at Mill Hill public school, "an average scholar", he did not go to university but studied industrial administration and cost accounting.

In 1942, he married Margaret Kempson, served as an artillery Major in France, Sicily and Italy, was mentioned in despatches and came home to demob and an amicable divorce.

He had wanted to stay in the Army, but his father's death brought him back to Dartford, Kent, as managing director of the family firm, Atlas Preservatives.

In 1949, 24-year-old Margaret Roberts presented herself to the local Tories for selection as candidate for the "hopeless" seat of Dartford.

"What caught my eye," said Denis 25 years later, "was the same qualities as now.

"She was beautiful, gay, very kind and thoughtful. Who could meet Margaret without being completely slain by her personality and intellectual brilliance?"

Denis Thatcher married Margaret Hilda Roberts, the Grantham grocer's daughter, Oxford chemistry graduate and would-be MP, at London's City Road Methodist Church on December 13, 1951.

She rewarded his pride in her and redoubled it by having twins, qualifying as a barrister and becoming an MP in the six years between 1953 and 1959.

When Denis Thatcher sold Atlas in 1965 for £560,000, it provided a springboard to a new career as an oil company executive with the Burmah group.

His wealth gave his wife financial independence, but it was not until the early 1970s that her career took off in a way that threatened to dwarf his own.

Even as Minister of Education, Mrs Thatcher would make a point of specifying her husband as "the real bread-winner".

When she decided to challenge Edward Heath for the leadership he backed her all the way. The possibility of defeat, he used to say, did not exist.

With victory, a third party began to dominate their marriage - the Conservative Party - just as he was planning to retire.

The company husband, who began with a company wife, now had to reverse roles. For the next 16 years, he lived in the shadow of his wife - "The Boss" as he called her - always two paces behind, but two seconds ahead if trouble loomed.

His secret of survival was to retain his own separate identity, but keep it well hidden.

The premier's canny consort once offered his own characteristically modest explanation: "So long as I keep the lowest possible profile and neither write nor say anything, I avoid getting into trouble."

Indeed, he never strayed from his policy of refusing to give interviews to journalists, although he used to mix with them convivially, especially on official overseas trips with his wife.

Once he was ushered out of the House of Commons after an incident in 1979, and never risked going back.

From the Strangers' Gallery, he had brought the House to a surprised silence when he let out a "Yippee!" at the Labour Government's loss of a decisive vote.

Over the years, he raised pleasant, unquotable small talk to an art form, and he had an upper lip so stiff it could have been starched.

After the IRA's Brighton bomb had nearly killed him and his wife with the rest of the Cabinet, his only comment was: "It was quite a thump. You should have seen our bathroom. It looks as if it's been through a wringer."

The fictitious letters that Denis wrote to his pal Bill, a regular feature of Private Eye, became a huge invisible asset, a caricature of an ageing Hooray Henry that he sometimes seemed to encourage.

When the comic Willie Rushton once asked the real Prime Minister's husband how he spent his time, he replied: "When I'm not paralytic, I like playing golf."

Even at the age of 80, he was drinking gin "at an admirable rate", according to his daughter and biographer Carol. And he stared in shock and disbelief at any of his cronies - and there were a few - who had decided to give up the bottle.

He dealt with universal recognition with wry, evasive humour. Buying a round in a London pub, a man turned to him and said: "You're either him or the spitting image of him," and he replied: "I know, it's always happening. It's bloody infuriating. You can't get a drink in peace anywhere any more."

He made no secret of the fact that it was a lonely life in his annexe at Downing Street and that he longed to "pole off" to a peaceful retirement.

"My idea of heaven," he told friends, "is sitting in my garden on a warm June night with a bottle of bubbly and my wife in a reasonably calm frame of mind."

And if ever he got the chance, while his wife was running the country, Denis would slip upstairs into the Downing Street flat, spreadeagle himself on the bed and watch golf tournaments on TV.

Once at a party shortly after John Major supplanted his wife at Number Ten, Denis turned to a journalist, and said: "Life is not going to be so much ruddy fun any more, neither for you nor for me."

In a loving partnership he was intensely proud of her achievements and she was no less touched by his unswerving loyalty to her.

"You come back home and you know, whatever has happened outside that day, there is always affection and loyalty, a sense of perspective and a sense of proportion - that is what Denis gives me," she once said.

DT, as Mrs Thatcher called her husband, blamed disloyalty of colleagues for the November 1990 leadership contest.

When almost certain defeat loomed ahead of a second ballot, his influence on the last chapter of the Thatcher era was crucial.

According to friends, he told her: "Darling, I don't want you to be humiliated" - and she bowed out.

The Queen appointed the longest serving of her nine prime ministers a member of the Order of Merit, the highest accolade in the land.

Sir Denis Thatcher of Scotney Castle in Kent was awarded the hereditary baronetcy - the first for 26 years - for his supporting role through the decade of Thatcherism. The title goes through the male line to his son Mark, then to grandson Michael.

Sir Denis was ten years beyond official retirement age when he finally swapped 10 Downing Street for eventual retirement in Chester Square, Belgravia.

At the final party for the staff at No 10, he thanked everyone: "I hope you will remember me as never having been discourteous to anyone. That's what I'd like to be remembered for."

In January, at the age of 87, Sir Denis underwent a six-hour heart by-pass operation at the Harley Street Clinic in central London.

To the surprise and delight of the medical staff, Sir Denis was able to leave the clinic after 11 days to recuperate first at a spa hotel and then in South Africa with his wife.

But earlier this month, Sir Denis returned to hospital, the Royal Brompton in London, for tests after feeling unwell and was later transferred to another London hospital, the Lister.

Their son Mark flew back to Britain from South Africa, and their twin daughter Carol also returned to London from Switzerland.