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DOMINIC LAWSON: A full-body shimmy at The Savoy and why Maggie was as much mother hen as Iron Lady

There is a weird, if accidental, symmetry in the fact that the BBC’s five-part series on the rise and fall of Margaret Thatcher coincides with the process of extracting the second female prime minister from 10 Downing Street.

Theresa May has just been told by the executive of the 1922 Committee (otherwise known as the ‘men in suits’) that she must go, and soon. 

One or two newspapers reported that Mrs May dabbed her nose with a handkerchief. 

Margaret Thatcher broke down completely when announcing her resignation in November 1990

Margaret Thatcher broke down completely when announcing her resignation in November 1990

If so, that is nothing to the emotion Margaret Thatcher displayed in November 1990, when announcing her resignation to her cabinet. She broke down completely.

One of her private secretaries at the time, Caroline Slocock, observed ‘the sheer vulnerability of this woman, surrounded by men and round this coffin-shaped table — telling them the end had come. 

And, basically, the reason she had to face this decision was that they’d told her so’.

Dismal

There is nothing of that high drama in the negotiated (yet still indeterminate) exit of Theresa May. 

A more significant difference is that Margaret Thatcher was then still greatly admired by the bulk of Conservative Party members. 

Whereas a recent poll of the membership showed that 80 per cent of them believe Mrs May should be immediately replaced.

The contrast is hardly surprising. Mrs Thatcher had won three general elections with solid majorities, transforming the country’s economy and restoring a sense of national pride; Mrs May lost the party’s parliamentary majority in a dismal campaign two years ago, and as a result has failed to deliver her administration’s only essential task — Brexit.

I had never been so aware of Mrs Thatcher’s continuing extraordinary bond with the grass roots of the Conservative Party as when in 1993 I hosted a dinner at The Savoy Hotel for those who had paid to hear her talk about her memoir, The Downing Street Years. 

At the end of her address, as her fans cheered her, she responded with what I can only describe as a full-body shimmy of pleasure and acknowledgment. I could hardly fail to notice, as I was no more than two feet from her.

But what I also couldn’t fail to notice, as I sat next to her during the dinner she was to address, was that she seemed very nervous, her hands shaking slightly, as she studied her notes before standing up to speak.

It astounded me, as this was the easiest audience she could hope to have, admirers who would have applauded anything she said. 

But above all it made me realise what a colossal strain her political life must have been: she was clearly a big worrier, as prey to anxiety as any of us.

So I was not surprised to learn that the BBC series will reveal, from conversations with those who worked with her, the frequency with which she would burst into tears in Downing Street when faced with crises or setbacks.

This is the obverse of the phrase which defined her from early on in her leadership — the Iron Lady (which she originally didn’t like because it suggested a lack of feminine kindness.)

Theresa May has just been told by the executive of the 1922 Committee (otherwise known as the ‘men in suits’) that she must go, and soon. One or two newspapers reported that she shed a tear at the news

Theresa May has just been told by the executive of the 1922 Committee (otherwise known as the ‘men in suits’) that she must go, and soon. One or two newspapers reported that she shed a tear at the news

For despite the Spitting Image puppet version which displayed her as a sort of male impersonator, she was, in fact, full of a personal thoughtfulness which we associate with the female of the species. 

One of her many private secretaries, Nick Sanders, will appear in tonight’s first episode, saying about the hundred or so of those who worked for her over the years in Downing Street, ‘if any of us had a serious family problem, a bereavement, a sick child, she would stop whatever she was doing and ask us a lot of questions about whether we had been in touch with the right people, whether we had been getting all the support that we could’.

A charming, if farcical account, of this aspect of her character was provided by Ferdinand Mount, who had been head of the Number 10 Policy Unit in 1982-3.

Conflicts

In his wonderful memoir, Cold Cream, Mount wrote of how ‘her mother-hen aspect is always to the fore in her concern for her staff, even in the relentless routine of Downing Street’, and of what happened two hours into an exhausting policy meeting when she suddenly observed that he didn’t sound very well.

‘“You’ve got a cold coming on, Ferdy.” “No, I don’t think so, Prime Minister.” “Yes, you have, I’m sure. You need some Redoxon.” 

“Honestly, Prime Minister, I promise you I haven’t.” “I’ve got some Redoxon in the flat. I’ll go and get it.” 

“No, please don’t. I’m sure we’ve got some at home, and anyway I don’t need it.” “One always needs Redoxon.”

‘And she shoots out of the room, up two-and-a-half flights of stairs, to get me the blasted pills I don’t need, while everyone else in the room looks furiously at me for causing this further delay. 

It is hard to think of another prime minister in British history who would have insisted on interrupting a meeting and going to get the Redoxon herself.’

Mrs Thatcher  was seen in tears when she left Downing Street after her resignation in November 1990

Mrs Thatcher  was seen in tears when she left Downing Street after her resignation in November 1990

Impossible, I’d say: and when you think that this was around the period of the Falklands War and the build-up to the miners’ strike, it makes her solicitousness over a sniffle even more significant as a measure of her character.

Those two conflicts dominate our assessment of the first woman prime minister. But it is a pervasive error to propagate the idea — as countless have done, including the BBC — that she welcomed or encouraged them. 

An earlier BBC documentary, Thatcher And The Unions, stated: ‘Thatcher wanted a showdown with a major union. 

She got her wish in 1984 when the battle mode she had recently adopted for the Falklands conflict was directed towards a new combatant: Arthur Scargill [the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers].’

In fact, when my father, Nigel Lawson, became Energy Secretary in 1981, the only instruction he received from the PM was: ‘Nigel, we mustn’t have a coal strike.’ 

And on the eve of the 1984 strike, his successor as Energy Secretary, Peter Walker, gained Thatcher’s approval for a deal in which miners at pits scheduled for closure would be offered the choice of a job at another pit or a voluntary redundancy package — and a further £800 million to be invested in the Coal Board.

Opponent

Yet it was rejected by Scargill — and a strike declared without a ballot of members — because this Marxist wanted to use the miners to bring down the government in what he saw as class war. He picked the wrong opponent.

Similarly, it was the Argentine junta which chose to invade the Falklands. And yet, admittedly under huge pressure from the U.S. administration, Thatcher accepted the Peruvian peace plan. 

This proposed that if Buenos Aires agreed to remove its forces, the Falklands would be temporarily administered by the British, but under joint supervision with the American and Argentine governments, to be followed by negotiations over the islands’ long-term status.

To Washington’s astonishment, it was General Galtieri who rejected this compromise plan, not Mrs Thatcher. 

In 1993, Mrs Thatcher spoke at the Savoy Hotel about her memoir, The Downing Street Years. Above: In 1993 signing copies of her book at WH Smith's, in Sloane Square, London

In 1993, Mrs Thatcher spoke at the Savoy Hotel about her memoir, The Downing Street Years. Above: In 1993 signing copies of her book at WH Smith’s, in Sloane Square, London

In other words, and despite what is almost universally supposed, she was not unwaveringly set on military conflict, let alone as some sort of jingoistic display to distract from the great economic difficulties then confronting her administration.

The Labour leader Neil Kinnock disgracefully asserted, when it was put to him that Mrs Thatcher had shown ‘guts’ over the Falklands: ‘It’s a pity that others had to leave theirs on the ground at Goose Green in order to prove it.’ 

Yet as Charles Moore’s official biography of Thatcher revealed, she would cry bitterly, and for hours, when news of British casualties reached her. 

She understood, not least as a mother, what that meant for the families of those young men cut down in battle.

Yet from the days of ‘Thatcher, Milk Snatcher’, she had been portrayed as some sort of witch, devoid of femininity and feelings. 

That was why so many (on the Left) sang, or tweeted: ‘Ding Dong! The Witch is dead’, after her life came to an end in April 2013. If this BBC series is any good, they’ll hate it.

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