Dominic Lawson: Believe it or not, Thatcher was a woman who cared

The way she carried herself at a celebratory dinner twenty years ago showed both the strain Thatcher could put herself under and the screen goddess style she could turn on

Share

Twenty years ago, I sat next to Margaret Thatcher at a Savoy Hotel dinner for readers of The Spectator who had paid to hear her talk about her memoir, The Downing Street Years. My job, as the magazine’s editor, was to introduce her. She seemed very nervous, her hands shaking slightly, as she scrutinised her notes before standing up to speak.

I was both astounded and impressed; astounded because this was a post-prandial audience of fans, who would have applauded anything she said; impressed because it made me realise just what a strain her entire political life must have been. This was a worrier, and not at all a self-confident person. That was a number of years before the first signs of her dementia, so I don’t think Mrs Thatcher’s nervousness was anything to do with memory loss. But it’s quite possible that her condition was connected with the incredible strain to which she had subjected herself. Her long-time foreign policy adviser Charles Powell gloomily told me, after she had the first of a series of minor strokes, that he always feared that this would be the inevitable price of her phenomenal workload, involving year after year of doing with no more than four hours’ sleep a night.

But that evening in 1993, she was still on her best ex-prime ministerial form. At the end of her address, as her fans cheered her, she responded with what I can only describe as a full-body wiggle, an almost sensual shimmy – which I could hardly fail to notice, sitting about two feet behind her. It was not quite Marilyn Monroe, but I began to understand why François Mitterrand had compared her comportment to that of the screen goddess.

Glamour

The obvious fact that this was a woman was appreciated much more by the Frenchman – a political and ideological opponent in so many ways – than by her own colleagues. Gillian Shephard, who was a very junior minister under Mrs Thatcher, has just produced her own account, The Real Iron Lady:Working with Margaret Thatcher, which makes it very clear just how difficult the male Tory party establishment had found it to deal with any sort of woman boss.

When Shephard was selected as a parliamentary candidate in 1986 (by which time Mrs Thatcher had already completed 11 years as party leader), three officers resigned from her local Conservative association, “saying as they left the room that they could not go home and say to the people in their villages that the next MP would be a woman”; and when Shephard arrived in the Commons a year later, “one Conservative colleague called me Betty. After I corrected him, he said: ‘Oh, I call you all Betty, you all look the same to me’.”

Anyone who overcame that level of male condescension to become party leader would by necessity be phenomenally tough – although it’s also the case that, at a human level, such toughness was more in the hiding of emotions than in not having them in the first place. In Shepherd’s memoir, there is an eye-witness account of Mrs Thatcher crying non-stop for 40 minutes after a British warship bound for the Falklands was struck by an Argentine missile: despite what the cynics would say, those tears were not of a politician, but of a mother who had put young men in harm’s way.

It was the Falklands conflict which transformed Thatcher from the most unpopular Prime Minister the opinion polls had ever recorded to one who swept aside all adversaries. Archives released last month reveal that behind the scenes she faced strong opposition from her own party’s grandees, many of whom favoured the most abject compromises with General Galtieri’s junta, and one telling the Tory Whips: “This’ll make Suez look like common sense.” She also went through furious rows with President Ronald Reagan, who told her it was madness to try to recapture the Falklands by force. Quite unlike Tony Blair, who sought in his own dealings with George W Bush to emulate Mrs Thatcher’s relationship with Reagan, she was never concerned to flatter American presidents, or anyone else who happened to run another country.

Not all tough

Indeed, possibly the most attractive aspect of Mrs Thatcher the leader was that she reserved the worst of her character – the handbagging and the bullying – for the most powerful, which, of course, included (to their eventually terminal exasperation) her own Cabinet; yet to more junior officials, and especially to those with no power at all, she was unfailingly kind and thoughtful.

In his wonderful book Cold Cream, her former Downing Street Policy Unit head, Ferdinand Mount, recalls how in a meeting to plan the next manifesto, she suddenly noticed that he was snuffling. “You’ve got a cold coming on, Ferdy.” “No, I don’t think so.” “Yes, you have, I’m sure. You need some Redoxon.” Despite more denials from Mount, she rushed up the two and half flights of stairs to the No 10 flat “to get me the blasted pills that I don’t need, while everyone else in the room looks at me furiously for causing this delay”.

A similar account comes from Elizabeth Cottrell, an adviser who had been involved in some late-night drafting of a speech. “The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was running a bath for me, bringing me a night dress and toothbrush, popping a hot-water bottle into the bed, just in case it was cold! Nothing was too much trouble for her... she was at my bedside at 7am with a cup of tea.”

None of this would alter the view of her enemies – for example, those miners who fought to keep their pits open – that she was a cruel and implacable woman. But what a woman.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Technician

£20000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This long established dealer gr...

Recruitment Genius: Contact Centre Team Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company is the UK's leading...

Recruitment Genius: Shunter / HGV Driver

£23172 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading and fastest growing h...

Recruitment Genius: Property Manager / Estate Manager

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an experienced Resident...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: Greek Yes voters were so shy they didn’t even turn up to the polling stations

John Rentoul
epa04832814 Supporters of the 'No' campaign wave flags and react after the first results of the referendum at Syntagma Square, in Athens, Greece, 05 July 2015. Greek voters in the referendum were asked whether the country should accept reform proposals made by its creditors. 10367444  

Greek referendum: As Greece spirals towards disaster, a new era of extremist politics begins

Daphne Halikiopoulou
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate