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

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The law is too hard on sexting teenagers

Memphis Barker
 

Obama must speak out – Americans are worried no one is listening to them

David Usborne
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game