Margaret Thatcher obituary: The most divisive political leader of modern times

Her outsider’s mentality made her admired – worshipped, almost – by members of the Conservative Party

Andy McSmith
Tuesday 09 April 2013 11:08 BST
Baroness Margaret Thatcher arriving for the Passing of the World War One Generation Memorial Service on Armistice Day
Baroness Margaret Thatcher arriving for the Passing of the World War One Generation Memorial Service on Armistice Day

There has been no other leader quite like Margaret Thatcher in post-war Britain. No other post-war Prime Minister has been so admired, or so reviled. She was the first woman to lead a major political party in Britain, the longest-serving Prime Minister of the 20th century, and almost the only Prime Minister whose name is synonymous with an ideology. "Thatcherism" remained in political diction when the holder of that name was an elderly frail, lonely widow.

She was never much loved, though she would have liked to have been. She believed that she had a direct line to the British people, or at least the section of it from which she sprang: the hardworking, law-abiding, self-denying lower middle class. Although she dominated her party and the government machine, her self-image was of an outsider battling with an inert establishment. Evening visitors to the flat above Downing Street would sometimes find her and her husband, Denis, watching the news, and grumbling about the state of the nation, wanting something done.

This outsider's mentality made her admired - worshipped, almost - by members of the Conservative Party and its core supporters. Others felt grudging respect for her immense willpower. Even the satirists who thrived during the Thatcher years unwittingly enhanced the very reputation that they were mocking. One famous Spitting Image sketch showed Thatcher settling down to dinner with a collection of half-witted Cabinet ministers. Approached by the waiter, she ordered raw steak. "And what about the vegetables?" she is asked, to which she replied: "They'll have the same." Jokes such as this only reinforced her image as a strong leader. She was also lucky in the choice of enemies that fate threw in her path - the Kremlin, Argentina's General Galtieri, and the miners' leader, Arthur Scargill, all unwittingly helped her from success to success.

But to a very large minority of Britons - if not the majority - she was an increasingly unappealing embodiment of unfeeling middle-class self-righteousness. While it was her hostility to her fellow Europeans that most damaged her relations with senior Cabinet colleagues, what turned the public against her was the apparent glee with which she rode roughshod over sections of society, such as the miners and the unemployed.

Margaret Roberts was born in 1925, the second daughter of Alfred and Beatrice Roberts, in Grantham, Lincolnshire. Her father, a local grocer, was a member of the local council and became Mayor of Grantham in 1945. The family was Methodist, austere, and teetotal. They usually attended church three times on a Sunday. Though Alfred Roberts owned two shops and employed five assistants, there was no hot running water or inside lavatory in the family flat.

Later, it would be much commented on that Thatcher's Who's Who entry identified her as her father's daughter, but did not mention her mother. Similarly, neither her mother nor her sister, Muriel, featured in her lengthy memoirs, in which she pays tribute to her father, a shoemaker's son, as the person from whom she learnt "the basis for my economic philosophy."

In all the years she was in Downing Street, she allowed only one other woman a seat in the Cabinet. This was Janet Young, who was leader of the Lords from 1981 to 1983. Thatcher was in some respects very feminine, particularly in the endless care she took over her clothes and complexion, but she was no feminist. She preferred to work with men, preferably men who behaved flirtatiously, like her court favourite, Cecil Parkinson. The politician to whom she owed most was the long-serving, long-suffering Sir Geoffrey Howe - but he had no masculine charisma, and in the end she could hardly bear the sight of him.

Educated at Kesteven and Grantham High School, Margaret Roberts entered Somerville College, Oxford in 1943, to read chemistry, and became the first female secretary of the university's Conservative Association. In 1947, she started work as a research chemist at J. Lyons and Co. She also took up the study of patent law, and passed her Bar exams in December 1953. In 1948, aged only 23, she was chosen as Conservative candidate for Dartford, which she contested in the general elections in 1950 and 1951. Between those elections, she met Denis Thatcher, managing director of a paint and chemical firm inherited from his father. He was a divorcee, which cannot have pleased her Methodist parents, but they approved the match. The Thatchers' twin children, Mark and Carol, were born in August 1953.

In 1959, Mrs Thatcher fought the safe Conservative seat of Finchley, which she held until 1992. In 1961, she was given her first government job as a junior minister for Pensions. Edward Heath never really liked her, but was sufficiently impressed to appoint her shadow minister for education in February 1970. Consequently, the only Cabinet post she held, apart from that of Prime Minister, was as Education Secretary from June 1970 to February 1974. That she was kept there for so long was a sign that Heath had no wish to accommodate her ambition.

The major issue in those years was the spread of comprehensive schools, and consequent disappearance of grammar schools. Surprisingly, she presided over the creation of more comprehensive schools than any other Education Secretary, overruling just 326 out of 3,612 proposals to end selective education that crossed her desk. She was also a high-spending minister, successfully fighting each year for an increase in her budget. What brought her national notoriety, however, was a Treasury decision to end free school milk for children aged eight to 11, for which she was demonised as "Thatcher the Milk Snatcher".

After the government had fallen, in February 1974, Heath appointed her shadow minister for the environment. He insisted on including three populist ideas in the party manifesto for the October election: to fix mortgage interest, to encourage council tenants to buy their homes, and to abolish the rates. She was uneasy about selling policies that had not been thought through, but did so anyway, with great zeal. It raised her stock in the party, and earned her another promotion after the October election, to Shadow Treasury Minister.

Despite three election defeats, Edward Heath refused to stand down. The first challenge to him came from Thatcher's friend, Sir Keith Joseph, who had concluded that every government since the 1950s shared the blame for Britain's decline because they had all overspent. Joseph had been a regular visitor to the think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, where the philosophy that we now call Thatcherism was gestating. Yet he was a disaster as a candidate and his campaign imploded. On 21 November, Thatcher declared herself a candidate, though with little apparent chance of beating Heath. However, she acquired an astute campaign manager in Airey Neave, an authentic war hero who cleverly did not talk up her chances of success, but persuaded MPs to vote for her on the basis that Heath needed to be sent a warning shot.

On the first ballot, declared on 4 February 1975, she beat him by 130 to 119. A shocked Heath conceded defeat, and never forgave Mrs Thatcher; they did not exchange a civil word for nearly 20 years, until 8 October 1998, when they were persuaded to be seen on stage together at the Conservative Party conference. With Heath out, loyalists such as William Whitelaw, Sir Geoffrey Howe and Jim Prior were free to contest the next round - but the Thatcher bandwagon could not now be stopped, and she won resoundingly, with 146 votes to Whitelaw's 79, making her the first female leader of a major British political party.

One of her immediate problems was a shadow cabinet full of old Heath loyalists. She accepted that Joseph was too erratic for a major post and left him in charge of policy development, while major responsibilities were allocated to Whitelaw, Howe and Prior, who had opposed her. In the long run, Whitelaw became so invaluable that Thatcher was once moved to remark that "everybody needs a Willie"; and Howe, as treasury spokesman, was converted to free-market economics. In the short term, however, the impression was of business as usual. The Right Approach to the Economy, the key party document published in 1977, with Howe, Joseph and Prior as co-authors, pointed in the direction of tighter management of public spending and looser controls over business, but under Prior's influence, contained no threats to alter trade union law - although Thatcher's backbench ally, Norman Tebbit, and the newly formed National Association for Freedom, were calling for anti-strike laws.


ne public sign that Thatcher was more populist than Heath was her warning that Britain's white population feared being "swamped" by immigrants, a comment that earned her contempt from the left, but was worth valuable working-class votes for the Conservatives. Her attitudes to immigration, urban deprivation and South Africa attracted accusations of racism.

Always fortunate in her enemies, she annoyed the Soviet authorities by attacking communism in a January 1976 speech; the official Soviet news agency, Tass, retaliated by calling her the "Iron Lady" - an epithet that did her nothing but good. Yet there was not much that we would now call Thatcherite about the manifesto that the Conservatives put before the electorate. It barely mentioned the great issues that came to define her as a Prime Minister, such as curbing the unions, cutting public services, privatisation, or reducing income tax.

Instead, Thatcher the tactician took primacy over Thatcher the ideologue. Learning from Heath's past mistakes, she relied on winning the argument without making promises. The famous campaign poster "Labour Isn't Working", devised by the advertising agency run by the Saatchi brothers, was a classic example of a slogan that undermined Labour without promising anything. Unemployment would in fact be higher through the Thatcher years than it was when that poster was designed. During 1980, it rose by 836,000, the largest rise in any year since 1930.

Thatcher badly needed image advisers like the Saatchis, because the public did not warm to her. Even when the Labour Party was 14 points behind the Conservatives in the polls, its leader, Jim Callaghan, was 6 points ahead of Thatcher. By the end of the 1979 election, he was 19 points ahead of her - a graphic illustration that it was the Conservative Party, not Thatcher, who won that contest - aided by the strikes, disunity in the Labour Party, the fragility of the Lib-Lab pact and the failure to deliver devolution for Scotland. But though lucked played a part, it remains an unmatched achievement that she overcame all obstacles to emerge in May 1979 as Britain's first woman Prime Minister.

The words she uttered on the steps of Downing Street - "where there is discord, may we bring harmony" - were curiously inappropriate, in that she was to be the century's least harmonious Prime Minister. One of her administration's first acts was a lavish gift to the rich: a cut in the top rate of income tax from 83 to 60 per cent, introduced in Geoffrey Howe's first budget. To meet the cost of this and a cut in the standard rate, from 33p to 30p, VAT was raised from 8p to 15p. This huge transfer of wealth upwards was executed by a cabal of Treasury ministers without consulting the Cabinet; Jim Prior, the Employment Secretary, learnt about it from the CBI.

From July 1979 to July 1980, prices rose by 22 per cent, partly because of the VAT hike, and wages by 20 per cent. By the summer of 1980, several Cabinet ministers, including Prior, the Defence Secretary Francis Pym, and the Agriculture Minister Peter Walker, were in almost open revolt; but Thatcher held her ground, and at that November Conservative Party conference delivered one of her best remembered lines, crafted by her speechwriter Ronald Millar: "You turn if you want to: the lady's not for turning."

In January 1981, Thatcher hired the monetarist economics professor Alan Walters as her adviser, and at his prompting insisted that - despite rising unemployment and a sharp fall in output - the March 1981 budget should be deflationary, cutting public borrowing and raising indirect taxes again. It was soon followed by an ominous sign of the social impact of government policy, when a riot erupted in Brixton, in April, followed by another in Toxteth in July, and others around the country.

Thatcher adamantly refused to accept that these disturbances might be linked to rising unemployment. While the Cabinet stayed loyal in public, privately the Budget was subjected to scathing attack by a sequence of ministers, led by the Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine, at the last Cabinet meeting before the summer. She responded with a ruthless cabinet reshuffle in September. Her chief antagonist, Prior, was shunted off to Northern Ireland; four others were sacked; and she brought in three Thatcherite stalwarts - Cecil Parkinson, who became party chairman, Nigel Lawson, the new Energy Secretary, and Norman Tebbit, who replaced Prior. From there on, she had a Cabinet she could generally control, but her grip on the country seemed to have been lost for good. By the end of 1981, opinion polls showed her to be the most unpopular Prime Minister since records began; the only apparent uncertainty was whether the next election would be lost to Labour, or to the recently formed Liberal and SDP Alliance.

Thatcher's ally in the Foreign Office, Nicholas Ridley, had been negotiating with Argentina over a proposal that the UK should acknowledge Argentine sovereignty over the Falkland Islands, one of the last British colonies, and in return Buenos Aires should lease the islands back to the UK, to protect the islanders' way of life. The idea was overruled by Thatcher, who had already risked the wrath of the Tory right by presiding over a process that brought Robert Mugabe to power in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. She had also recently appointed another ally, John Nott, as Defence Secretary, with a brief to cut the budget, particularly the Royal Navy's. HMS Endurance, which patrolled the Falklands, was withdrawn in June 1981, six months before Gen Leopoldo Galtieri seized power.

When, on 2 April 1982, the Argentinians occupied the islands, Labour politicians imagined that would be the end of Mrs Thatcher. At a rare Saturday sitting of the Commons, she heard Tory MPs cheering the Labour leader, Michael Foot, who demanded that the islands be retaken, and she was warned by Enoch Powell that this was her chance to demonstrate that she actually was the "Iron Lady". She wrote in her memoirs that it was the most difficult Commons debate she ever faced. Overruling MoD advice that the islands could not be retaken, she sent off a Task Force to the South Atlantic.

The Foreign Office warned against a confrontation that might upset international alliances, and the Foreign Secretary, Pym, returned from Washington with compromise proposals which she flatly rejected. She knew that her political survival was at risk, and fully intended to retake the islands by force. "What was the alternative?" she wrote in her memoirs. "That a common or garden dictator should rule over the Queen's subjects and prevail by fraud and violence? Not while I was Prime Minister."

The war itself was short but bloody. Argentina surrendered on 14 June 1982 after the death of 649 Argentines and 255 Britons. Thatcher would face some awkward questions about the sinking of the cruiser General Belgrano with the loss of 368 Argentinian lives, but overall the war made her a political star, whose personality roused curiousity and grudging respect around the world.


n retrospect, it has become standard wisdom that the Falklands gave her a landslide victory in 1983. Actually, opinion polls had turned before the war began, helped by better economic news and by the policy of giving council tenants the right to buy their homes at a discount, which converted thousands of Labour-voting tenants into homeowning Tories.

In January, Thatcher kicked off a long election campaign by descending on the Falklands for a victory tour. The Labour Party, meanwhile, had spent the intervening years as if acting out a death wish; by the time of the election, in May, the Conservatives were 15 points ahead of a divided opposition. Their vote actually dropped by about 5 per cent, to just over 13 million, but this was concealed by the way the non-Tory vote divided equally between Labour and the Alliance, creating a Conservative majority of 144.

This stunning victory allowed Thatcher to tighten control over her Cabinet. Her most important promotion was to make Nigel Lawson, a relative newcomer, Chancellor of the Exchequer. Leon Brittan, another relatively young protégé, was appointed Home Secretary. Pym, who had angered her by his willingness to negotiate over the Falklands, was sacked. She wanted to replace him with her favourite, Cecil Parkinson, who had run the election campaign, but he privately confessed that his marriage was in trouble because his former lover, Sara Keays, was pregnant. Instead, she made Howe Foreign Secretary and put Parkinson in charge of the newly merged Department of Trade and Industry, until he was forced out of office.

Meanwhile, Thatcher faced a grim economic situation. Despite the reputation she now has as a tax cutter, she had presided for four years of rising government expenditure, which by 1983 had reached 48 per cent of GDP - a figure she would bring down to 40 per cent in the next seven years. Mortgage rates were also rising; unemployment had remained above three million. Against this background, she began simultaneous assaults on trade-union power and loss-making state industries. The latter were given a taste of what was in store when John King was appointed chairman of British Airways in 1980; by 1983, he had sacked 23,000 of its 57,000 employees and turned an annual loss of £140m into a £214m profit. In January 1984, Geoffrey Howe announced that unions were banned henceforth from operating at the GCHQ spy centre, in Cheltenham, whose employees were offered £1,000 each recompense for their lost rights. The resulting uproar produced a memorable attack on Mrs Thatcher, when Denis Healey described her in the Commons as "the great she-elephant, she who must be obeyed."

Early on, Thatcher had shown a tactician's reluctance to confront the National Union of Miners. She praised the "realism" of the National Coal Board when, in 1979, they offered the miners a 20 per cent pay rise, and overruled them when they proposed to close 23 pits early in 1981. But in 1983 she told the new Energy Secretary, Peter Walker, to get ready for a fight. She had already decided that the new Coal Board chairman was to be the elderly Scot, Ian MacGregor. He announced a programme of pit closures, which, on 6 March 1984, brought most of the miners - though not those from Nottinghamshire - out on a strike that lasted over a year. Throughout, Thatcher and her ministers intervened strategically to ensure that other unions did not join the strike, if necessary - as in the case of railway workers - by buying them off with generous pay awards; and they covertly encouraged individual miners to legal action against the NUM president, Arthur Scargill, for his refusal to hold a strike ballot.

The defeat of the miners reinforced her reputation as the Iron Lady, and for insensitivity - especially when, speaking to Tory MPs in July 1984, she urged them to be ready to fight "the enemy within". This reputation was reinforced by the negotiating style she used in EU conferences.

It was clear from the start that relations with other EU nations were not going to be harmonious. Thatcher went to Dublin, in November 1979, with the single-minded intention of reducing the UK contribution to the communal budget by £1bn, an objective she pursued at the risk of wrecking the summit. She was the only EU leader who would willingly see a conference end in deadlock rather than surrender what she considered to be British interests. In June 1984, she at last succeeded in negotiating a reduction in the British rebate, helped by the patient diplomacy of France's socialist President, Francois Mitterrand. Like many foreign statesman, Mitterrand viewed Thatcher with a kind of appalled fascination. "Cette femme Thatcher!" he famously remarked. "Elle a les yeux de Caligula, mais elle a la bouche de Marilyn Monroe."


ut this apparent inflexibility masked a willingness at times to make unexpected concessions. She refused to give way in spring 1981 when the IRA leader Bobby Sands went on hunger strike in H Block prison, allowing him and nine others to starve themselves to death. Thatcher had lost a personal friend to Irish terrorists when Airey Neave was killed by a car bomb in 1979. The IRA came close to assassinating her when they detonated a bomb in Brighton's Grand Hotel during the 1984 Conservative conference, killing five people, and seriously injuring Tebbit. Yet just over a year later, on 15 November 1985, she shocked Unionist opinion by signing the Anglo-Irish agreement, which for the first time gave Dublin the right to be consulted on matters affecting the north.

She was also intelligently flexible in her attitude to the USSR. In December 1984, the Foreign Office invited Mikhail Gorbachev, then a communist party secretary, to London. Gorbachev impressed Thatcher by the forcefulness with which he put the case against Star Wars, the US plan for positioning military hardware in space. "We can do business together," she told the BBC. Three months later, Gorbachev was President of the USSR.

She went straight to Washington from her meeting with Gorbachev. It is arguable that no other British Prime Minister had ever got on so well with an American President as she did with Ronald Reagan, despite diplomatic tension over the Falklands, and over the US decision in October 1983 to overthrow the government of Grenada, a former British colony, without forewarning her. One of many favours Reagan did her was to allow the UK to buy Trident at cost price. At Camp David, she persuaded Reagan to sign up to a four-point statement that answered the most serious objections put by Gorbachev. Thereafter, she defended Reagan against all critics. In April 1986, she allowed the Americans to use British bases for bombing raids on Libya.

Her instinctive preference for the US over Europe underlay the first major crisis in her Cabinet. The improbable cause was a disagreement between the Defence Secretary, Michael Heseltine, and the recently demoted Trade Secretary, Leon Brittan, over the future of the Westland helicopter firm. Thatcher supported Brittan, who supported Westland's shareholders, who preferred a marriage with the US firm, Sikorsky. Heseltine, meanwhile, wanted to put together a European consortium. This obscure disagreement erupted in a clash of strong personalities; on 9 January 1986, Heseltine resigned, claiming that Thatcher had cheated. Brittan was also forced out of office over the leaking of a document damaging to Heseltine, but was compensated with a job as European Commissioner.

Westland was the first in a sequence of events that would bring Thatcher down. As she faced a no confidence motion in the Commons on 27 January, she feared it could be the end of her premiership; but any such risk was averted by her superiority over the Labour leader, Neil Kinnock. "For a few seconds, Kinnock had her cornered, and you could see fear in those blue eyes," Alan Clark recorded in his diary. "Then Kinnock had an attack of wind and gave her time to recover. A brilliant performance, shameless and brave."

Westland and the Libyan bombing reduced Thatcher's personal popularity to a new low in summer 1986. In May she was publicly criticised by one of her former loyalists, the Leader of the Commons, John Biffen, prompting her pugnacious press secretary, Bernard Ingham, to dismiss Biffen as a "semi-detached" Cabinet minister. There followed a remarkable recovery which she owed largely to the self-defeating behaviour of the Labour Party and the soon-to-disintegrate Liberal-SDP Alliance. Having appointed her ally Norman Tebbit as party chairman, she was irritated by his conduct at the 1987 election, and inserted a new favourite, Lord Young, as his deputy chairman. But despite these internal problems, she was returned to power with another commanding majority, an electoral achievement then unmatched by any party leader in living memory.

Far from slowing down, Thatcher came back like someone who was only just getting started. The frantic pace that she now imposed on her government would be a factor in her downfall. In this mood of euphoria, she gave an interview to Woman's Own that contained the most famous - or notorious - quotation she ever uttered: "There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first."


he disposed of three former allies, Keith Joseph, Norman Tebbit and John Biffen, but brought in a couple of new protégés to her Cabinet - John Moore, who seemed to be her chosen successor, and John Major. Schools were put through their biggest upheaval for more than a decade, with the introduction of the national curriculum, though Thatcher was never able to find an Education Secretary who would follow through her most radical notion, to issue vouchers to parents so that they could "buy" places in state schools. The NHS underwent its biggest reorganisation since its foundation, with the creation of health trusts and the introduction of an internal market that separated health purchasers and providers; but the task was too much for Moore, whose career went into nosedive, depriving her of the only health secretary she ever found who would countenance replacing a tax-based NHS with private health insurance.

The privatisation of public utilities was at first one of the great political successes of the Thatcher administration. Having stumbled upon it as a means of improving public finances, they discovered a political gold mine that turned hundreds of thousand of people into first-time shareholders. The first major privatisation was British Telecom, in November 1984, which had the additional bonus of giving customers a better service. Four and a half million people bought British Gas shares. When electricity was privatised, in 1988, Labour's new energy spokesman, Tony Blair, broke with precedent by not promising to renationalise. After the 1987 victory, Thatcher also insisted on the more politically sensitive privatisation of the water industry. This was not popular, and increased suspicions that the government's reforms to the NHS were also a covert privatisation.

However, the single worst mistake that Thatcher made was to revive the old idea of abolishing the rates. The community charge, or poll tax, was not her idea alone, and initially promised to be popular in Scotland, where homeowners were scared by an upcoming revaluation of property for rates purposes; but her name became indissolubly linked to a policy that caused riots on the streets, and was rightly seen as a flagrant breach of the principle that taxes should not fall equally on the rich and the poor.

While the poll tax undermined her standing in the country, a revival of old quarrels about Europe split her Cabinet. Sir Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson believed that sterling should join the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), to minimise fluctuations between EU currencies. In 1987, Lawson began to "shadow" the deutschmark, intervening whenever the pound went above 3 DMs. This policy was introduced in secret; her camp would later claim that even she did not know about it, while Lawson was emphatic that she did; after it was abandoned, she blamed it for pushing up inflation, and leading rates.

She also refused to countenance setting a deadline for joining the ERM. This provoked a stand-off in June 1989, prior to the EU summit in Madrid, in which Howe and Lawson met her privately and threatened to resign unless the UK made some commitment at Madrid to join the ERM eventually. The result was the so-called "Madrid conditions", which Thatcher believed vague enough to keep the ERM at bay indefinitely, while the press coverage was positive enough to avert the threatened resignations.

Four weeks later, she took revenge by moving Howe from the Foreign Office to be Leader of the Commons, with the title of Deputy Prime Minister. Her spokesman, Ingham, made it clear to journalists that the title was meaningless. When Howe first rose to speak in his new capacity in the Commons, there was a loud, prolonged cheer from Tory MPs, which ought to have served as a warning to Thatcher. Lawson was also warning her that her decision to recall Alan Walters from academic life to be her economic adviser again was unacceptable to him, particularly after Walters had been quoted in the Financial Times describing ERM as "half-baked". Yet she seems to have been genuinely taken by surprise when Lawson resigned, on 26 October. Soon afterwards, she faced her first leadership challenge, from a little-known backbencher named Sir Anthony Meyer, whom she beat by 314 votes to 33.

Yet by the time of the next Conservative conference, in October 1990, she seemed to have put these problems behind her. Even the poll tax had not produced the disaster that the Tories had feared in the May local elections. Interest rates, which peaked at 15 per cent the previous October, were coming down. Her new Foreign Secretary and Chancellor, respectively Douglas Hurd and John Major, persuaded her that the UK could now join the ERM, which they did the week before the Tory conference, shamelessly upstaging Labour's conference.

Even her opposition to sanctions against South Africa seemed to have paid off, when, on 4 July 1990, Nelson Mandela, just out of jail, lunched with her in Downing Street. The biggest issue hanging over the Tory conference was Iraq's occupation of Kuwait. Thatcher had been in the US on the day of the invasion, and had been quicker and stronger than President George Bush in her reaction; she wanted an ultimatum sent to Iraq that would mean withdrawal or war. Her conference speech was therefore upbeat, including a joke at the expense of the Liberal Democrats, whom she likened to the dead parrot from the old Monty Python sketch.

Barely two weeks later, on 18 October, the "dead parrot" suddenly came to life in Eastbourne, where there was a by-election caused by the assassination on 30 July of Thatcher's devoted former parliamentary aide, Ian Gow. His huge majority vanished in a 20 per cent swing to the Lib Dems. On 1 November, Sir Geoffrey Howe resigned. Thatcher had humiliated him once too often, though what finally precipitated his departure was her Commons performance after an EU summit in Rome, during which she rejected what she regarded as creeping federalism in the EU by exclaiming "No, no, no". On 13 November, Howe made a resignation speech which, with its telling final phrase, "The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long", a more or less open call for her removal. The next day, Michael Heseltine declared that he was challenging her for the party leadership.

Her campaign team seemed not to take the threat seriously. She was in Paris for a conference on European security on the day votes were cast. On learning that she had won by 204 votes to 152 - not enough to prevent a second round - she told the waiting cameras that she would fight on. Back in London, however, she was shocked to learn from the whips that Heseltine might win a second ballot. She met her Cabinet ministers, one by one, in her Commons office, on the evening of 21 November; at least ten advised her that she should stand down, though there were others outside the Cabinet, including Michael Portillo and Alan Clark, urging her to fight on.

She announced her resignation on the morning of 22 November, and made her final Commons speech that afternoon, when she memorably said "I'm enjoying this." Her premiership, that lasted 11 years and six months, formally ended on 28 November, after John Major had won the second round of the leadership contest.

In retirement, a gulf seemed to open up between Lady Thatcher's colossal reputation, and the lady herself. In private, she could not come to terms with her dismissal, or what she saw as John Major's betrayal of her legacy. She gave up her Commons seat in 1992 and entered the Lords as Baroness Thatcher. Lecture tours and the publication of her memoirs in 1993 made her a very wealthy woman, but she was increasingly frail and lonely, particularly after Denis Thatcher's death, aged 88, on 26 June 2003. He had been made a hereditary baronet in 1990, and his title passed to their son, Mark. As a political name, though, Mrs Thatcher continued to dominate political discourse. Her endorsement, passed on privately, had secured John Major's place as her successor. The ferocity with which the Tory party tore itself apart under his leadership was the right's revenge for what they saw as the betrayal of Mrs Thatcher.

In 1997, her public endorsement made William Hague the sure winner in the next leadership election. Tony Blair also wanted a share of her prestige and invited her to Downing Street, as Gordon Brown did nine years later. In 2001, Portillo's supporters made the mistake of claiming that he had Thatcher's support; the discovery that this was not true contributed to the failure of his campaign. The first party leader elected without first securing her backing was David Cameron, though he took care to praise her as his "inspiration". When, in April 2008, the Daily Telegraph asked readers to name the best post-war Prime Minister, Lady Thatcher received 34 per cent of the vote; the runner-up, Winston Churchill, had 15 per cent.

After Denis Thatcher's death in 2003, Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven, as she now was, withdrew almost entirely from public life. Her last recorded public act was a brief message in March 2010 paying tribute to her old rival, Michael Foot, who had just died. Her last political act was a message to the Sun in September 2007, backing that paper's call for a referendum on the EU.

Many of her admirers were offended by the portrayal of her by Meryl Streep in the 2011 film The Iron Lady, as a confused old woman who thought that Denis was still alive. In reality, according to those who were still in contact with her, she had days when her mind was cloudy, and days when she was still sharp. Whatever she thought of the coalition government, she kept to herself.

Margaret Thatcher (née Roberts), politician: born Grantham, Lincolnshire 13 October 1925; MP (Conservative) Finchley, 1959-92; Joint Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance, 1961-64; Secretary of State for Education and Science, 1970-74; Leader of the Opposition, 1975-79; Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury, 1979-90; Co-Chairman, Women's National Commission, 1970-74; Chancellor, University of Buckingham, 1992-98; William and Mary College, Virginia, 1993-2000; Chairman, Bd, Inst. of US Studies, London University, 1994-2002; Hon. Fellow, Somerville College, Oxford, 1970; married 1951 Denis Thatcher (died 2003, one son, one daughter); died London 8 April 2013.

Margaret Thatcher: Round-up of today's full coverage

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