Baroness Margaret Thatcher in 2001 © Joe Partridge/Rex Features
Somehow out of character, Lady Thatcher begins by apologising. “You must excuse the mess. I’ve been so busy with one thing after another and there comes a time when you’ve got to stop and sort things out. That’s what I tried to do yesterday. Didn’t get very far I’m afraid… Now, can I get you a coffee?”
We are in the nerve centre of what might be called Operation Thatcher, a large first floor room in a tall portico-fronted house in Belgravia, that square mile of Westminster populated noticeably by foreign embassies. Number 36 Chesham Place has a shiny black door, just like No 10, and even has a policeman stationed outside. Lady Thatcher’s study – it is far too tidy and comfortable to call an office – is also very reminiscent of the Prime Minister’s room at No 10. Even down to the ground-to-ceiling net curtains and the huge desk with a revolving globe of the world standing beside it. The armchairs and settee are deep and squashy, the coffee table not cluttered up. On the wall above the mantelpiece is a portrait of Margaret Thatcher on her wedding day with a feather in her hat. On the opposite wall, a painting of the Royal Marines landing at Carlos Bay in the Falklands war.
On the same floor there is a dining room, two offices for secretaries and other staff. This is where Thatcher’s lecture tours of America (“five this year”) are launched, where she prepares for her heavy list of public and private engagements, and where she plans the disposal of her archives – “they’re going to Cambridge, where Winston’s went.” She and Sir Denis actually live somewhere else, close by in Chester Square, and that is something we’re going to talk about in a minute. But first there is a pre-arranged photographic session to be gone through – “photographers take so long,” Lady T mildly complains.
On the ground floor Brian Aris has positioned a high-backed chair, carefully lit, against a background of neutral -coloured curtains. Lady Thatcher is wearing a dress of what might be called royal blue, with a brooch and several rings. Her very fair hair has been professionally back-combed earlier in the morning and is so spun-web-fine you can see through it.
She descends the wide sweep of staircase – again comparison with Number 10 is almost inevitable – with one hand resting lightly on the bannisters, her eyes looking down to avoid tripping. At 72 (73 in October) she is still a very attractive and handsome woman, with a naturally good complexion and small, delicate-looking hands. There is no sign of the scrawny neck that television pictures sometimes make her out to have.
Once seated, she is asked if she is comfortable and her reply is pure Thatcher mixed with Queen Victoria: “One has not given attention to whether one if comfortable, only whether one is sitting straight and looking into the lens.”
It had been hoped that Sir Dennis Thatcher might join his wife for the pictures. “He’ll come, but in his own time,” says Lady Thatcher. “You mustn’t forget, he’s 83.” When he arrives a few minutes later it’s noticeable how solicitous she is for her husband. She watches his every move. He stands behind the chair, resting an arm along the back. “We don’t want to look too Edwardian,” she suggests.
Sir Denis has always resolutely declined to give interviews. So, after the pictures have been taken, he retires through one door, while Lady Thatcher and I go back up the long flight of stairs. Her left arm brushes against the door jamb of the study as she enters. But her walking – short, quick steps, body inclined forwards – is as firm as ever. She admits to a slight loss of hearing. I had noticed downstairs that she fiddled with her large pearl earrings from time to time. Perhaps they were the latest in disguised hearing aids? “No, no, I haven’t got to that stage yet,” she protests. “The thing is, I don’t have pierced ears and my earrings sometimes irritate a little.”
It will be eight years in November since Mrs Thatcher left Office. Both Sir Denis and Lady Thatcher look to be in thriving health. “The years haven’t advanced enough for me to notice very much,” purrs Lady Thatcher. But she has detected a difference in Denis “because he’s that much older. He’s getting arthritis in his hands. I think it may be in the family. He takes oils and so on, but he hasn’t been able to grasp a golf club for about a year now, which is sad. He goes off to watch rugby with his friends, which I like to see him to.”
The former Prime Minister believes that exercise, diet, and above all, keeping busy, are the keys to staving off the symptoms of old age. And routine. “The great thing in life is to get a routine. It’s much simpler. The muscles know what to do, and you know where you are at different times of the day.”
Seven years ago the Thatchers moved from a new house in Dulwich, bought for retirement, to a five-storey house in Chester Square, which looks out on to a communal garden at the front and has a patio at the back. There is a bedroom, dressing room and bathroom on each of the three upper floors. There are 92 treads to the stairs. “It was suggested we had a lift installed, but I said No. It would take up too much space and wouldn’t look beautiful. We rarely go up all the stairs at once, but in any case climbing the stairs is good for the heart!”
A daily lady comes in five mornings a week, but Lady Thatcher makes breakfast (“fruit juice or yoghurt for me, an egg or bacon and tomato – grilled, never fried – for Dennis.”), and an evening meal, two courses only, (“the days of three courses are long gone.”). Even on the frequent occasions when they are invited out to lunch or dinner, the Thatchers watch their diet carefully. “You really have to look after your food consumption when you’re older. A little discipline is very good.”
Lady Thatcher leaves home for the office usually by chauffeur-driven Jaguar between 9.15 and 9.45 am. She rarely finishes work before 6.30 pm. At weekends there is little time to relax, even if the word is in her vocabulary. “One has to do the ironing, sort out and press one’s clothes, make the meals and wash up. Yes, we do have a dishwasher, but there’s really very little point in using it when there’s just the two of us. It doesn’t take long to wash and dry. We do it together.”
Sitting in her study – Lady Thatcher sitting up straight and me trying to remember to – it seems totally incongruous to equate the picture of the busy, bustling pensioner housewife with the iron lady who ruled Britain for 11½ years and, metaphorically, swung her handbag so triumphantly in defence of the realm. All right, when she was at Number 10 I had heard her speak about shopping in supermarkets and making Denis his tea, but I had always suspected there was at least a smidgen of vote-catching in her domestic confessions. Now there are no votes to catch. “Spring cleaning. I love spring cleaning. Turning everything out. I get a great sense of satisfaction when it is done.”
Lady Thatcher, in her memoirs, has written a few pages about her final days as Prime Minister, but, as in nearly all political biographies, the words are fairly dry, the deepest feelings hidden. Now, as the conversation moves on, I believe for the first time possibly she speaks about what it was really like to lose her job. There is no trace of self-pity in her tone, and only a small sign of personal regret. There is just deep anger over what she believes her departure has led to.
“The people who brought about that incident…” (the word she repeatedly uses to describe the circumstances of her downfall) “…are responsible for the biggest defeat the Conservative Party has ever had. You know their names, but I’d rather not mention them. They’re in my book.” (Heseltine, Howe, Clarke, Lilley, Rifkind and Lamont figure large in The Downing Street Years.) “They have let the Labour Party in, and big! You won’t turn that round in one election!”
It is all part of history now… the challenge for the leadership… the ballots… the in-fighting… But hearing Margaret Thatcher describe events is hearing living history.
“I was in Paris at an international conference when I got news of the results of the first ballot by the Conservative Members of Parliament for the leadership.” (Margaret Thatcher: 204; Michael Heseltine: 152 – short of the two-thirds majority required.) “It was just about the most cruel thing that could have happened because I had to meet all my colleagues at the conference and go on to a dinner at the Palace of Versailles. I must say, President Bush and Barbara, in particular, were absolutely marvellous.
“I was somewhat stunned by the results of the ballot, of course I was. The system has changed now, but it always seemed to me strange that you had to have a two-thirds majority support from the Parliamentary Party, because I was elected by the people not the Party. How did I feel inside myself? Inside myself, I felt precious little of some people in the Party!”
After hearing the news, Mrs Thatcher – as she was – went up to her room and made a number of calls, including one to her husband. “There was little to be said. The dangers were all too obvious, and the telephone was not right for a heart-to-heart.”
Mrs Thatcher issued a statement in Paris confirming her intention to let her name go forward for the second ballot. But, speaking today, apparently her mind was pretty well made up even before she discovered she could no longer count on the support of several of her Cabinet members.
“I could have come home and said, all right I’ll go on and into the second round of balloting. But I thought, I’ve been Prime Minister for 11½ years, I believe I’ve changed the whole prospects and face of Britain, and if you do this to me – I’m going! I chose to go.
“When I got back to Number 10 I went straight through the door and straight up to the flat” (where the Thatchers lived) “to talk to Denis. He said ‘Don’t stay, love; don’t stay.’ He was more deeply hurt than I was. So I simply indicated, ‘Right, I’m going!’ They had five days to sort things out. I just simply packed up and went round and said my goodbyes.”
Television showed Margaret Thatcher in tears as she left Number 10. How deep are the regrets and recriminations, still? Lady Thatcher’s expression, fierce as of old, slackens. “I was lucky. I had 11½ years. I got things really right. The Conservative Party had gone left for a long time – a soft left – and we as a government brought it back to true conservatism. I left with a majority of 100. John Major managed to hold it, and then we had an election and the greatest defeat the Party has ever known. It was catastrophic for me because I got things right and that defeat stemmed from that incident.”
Would she ever consider standing for election again? Lady Thatcher smiles. “Never try to go back. Other young people want to come up and have the chance I had. There were some things I had in hand when I was Prime Minister that needed to be completed, but I’m not sure it would have been right for me to go on even after another successful election.”
Two vignettes of the day Margaret Thatcher left office come to her mind. The first, going to Buckingham Palace for a final audience of the Queen – and realising she had to switch cars once she was no longer Prime Minister. And the second: “I thought I’d go back just one more time to my room at Number 10, to make sure I’d left nothing and left it tidy. But apparently I’d already taken the door key off my keyring and when I looked for it, it had been taken away. So I couldn’t go back in.
“Moving out of Number 10 has to be done quickly, because just as oneself was welcomed so the people concerned have to welcome the next person to come in. You take the good luck as you go in, and you know it must end.”
More than once during our conversation Lady Thatcher has paid tribute to Sir Denis for the love and support he has given his wife throughout her career. “I was always very lucky in having Denis with me. If ever I lost my job, which I did, I never had to think how on earth am I going to earn my living. Denis could always have supported me. I never took my full salary, and since I left Office we’ve had a very interesting life. We’ve been invited everywhere. I’ve made quite a lot of money. Some goes into a Foundation, some to endowing the archives I’m sending to Cambridge, and now we’re in the process of setting up an Enterprise Chair at Cambridge University. One has to earn quite a lot of money to do all these things.”
What about leaving money to the children? It is a consideration that engages many parents. The Thatchers have grown-up twins, Mark and Carol, and two grandchildren by Mark’s American wife Diane. Do she and Sir Denis have a great deal to do with the children?
For the first time Lady Thatcher’s chin drops and she seems to become smaller in her chair. “No, it’s very sad,” she says, speaking slowly. “It’s something that I thought would never happen.” She pauses for a moment. “Let me put it this way. When your mother is Prime Minister, children are very much in the limelight and the Press are very tough on them. So much so that I thought it better for them to leave the country. And they’re both still away.
“My son was in America for a long time, married to an American girl, and now they’re in South Africa. My daughter is in Switzerland. All one’s thoughts were to have a nice house for the family… we see them at Christmas… sometimes when we’re in America we visit… And there is always the telephone, of course… but no, we don’t see very much of them… My son and his wife regularly go from South Africa to America – but they haven’t been here since they went to live in South Africa.
“Both grandchildren have dual nationality – I thought it right that they should – but one day they will have to take a decision as the baronetcy goes down the line.” Her chin lifts, and the smile that is so familiar returns. “You have to take life as it comes and be very grateful for it. There’s no point in bewailing what might have been. My greatest delight is when my daughter-in-law sends me photographs of the grandchildren. Apart from seeing them in the flesh, that is the greatest pleasure I have in the whole year, far exceeding everything else.”
Over the years Mark Thatcher has not had a good Press. Just that week there had been a story by a famous gossip columnist that Mark had asked his mother for a loan of several hundred thousand pounds. I wondered, “Is there any truth in these sort of stories?”
“Look, if I see our family name in the papers I don’t ready what it says,” Lady Thatcher replies. “I have no respect for people who deliberately pick at someone. So I don’t read what they write. Someone rings up and says, ‘Have you seen such and such in the papers?’ I say thank you for telling me, but I’m not going to read it.” And plainly, she is not going to talk about any problems her son may have either.
Ironically, Margaret Thatcher’s rise to the top came about largely through another politician and very good personal friend, Keith Joseph, turning down the chance of becoming Party Leader primarily because of the pressures on his children. “He knocked on my door in the House of Commons and said, ‘I’ve come to tell you Margaret, I cannot stand for election. I cannot take the constant Press attention with the children not being able to go freely in and out of the house. Don’t try and dissuade me.’” Margaret Thatcher admits chance has played a large part in her political progress, and she has always taken opportunities when they arise. “But it was not as if I’d sat and thought about it in this case, yet I heard myself saying, ‘Well, if you’re not going to stand, I will – because someone who thinks and feels the way we both do about politics has to stand.’”
“It seems to me,” I suggest to Lady Thatcher, perhaps a little bluntly, “that in the end you may have saved the country but lost your children?” She does not take offence.
“Look, you can’t have everything. It has been the greatest privilege being Prime Minister of my country and having many friends all interested in the same subjects. Yes, I wish I saw more of my children. We don’t have Sunday lunch together. We don’t go on holiday, skiing any more. Our grandma used to live with us – my mother’s mother – so granny was always about, and grannies are a great asset. My grandmother used to tell me what life was like in her young days and I used to sit at her feet fascinated. But I can’t regret. And I haven’t lost my children. They have to live their lives. I took a different life.”
Finally, the conversation turns from family matters to politics and the future, and the relief of Lady Thatcher’s face is plain to see. The voice that had been subdued is back to trumpet strength.
“The Euro? Well, I don’t like it. It’s upsetting. But I’m afraid many people are besotted with the idea of Europe. William Hague has said he wouldn’t go in for 10 years. I say we shouldn’t go in – period.
“In my lifetime Europe has been the source of our problems, not the source of our solutions. It’s America and Britain that saved the world.”
But if the European countries came together, would there not be less chance of conflict and more of economic success? “They won’t come together. There is no European nation. There never will be. There is no European language, there never will be. We don’t want to be dissolved into any amorphous group. We wish to keep our identity, our language, our pride, our customs, and to co-operated with nations with their own pride, own monarchies, own customs. That’s the way to do it. I’m afraid that Parliament, once greatly venerated and in charge of our nation, answerable to the people, now is, and can be, over-ruled by Europe, from Europe. We are no longer free, and I think it’s got to stop!”
Where do you see your own personal future, I ask. “I don’t necessarily have a future, except in what I’m doing now.”
But you still have a lot of influence.
“Yes, I still meet with my contemporaries. We see quite a lot of one another.”
I come back to an earlier question: if there were to be another great crisis in this country and a call came for her to return to Number 10, how would she answer it?
“Gladstone formed his fourth administration when he was 83, or something like that, and Winston was very old. But no, no. There are plenty of young people coming up. I’m now a backstop. Always there for anything anyone may want.”
The Downing Street Years by Margaret Thatcher is available to buy at a discount from the
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Saga Magazine in September 1998. For more fascinating articles like this, delivered direct to your doorstep each month, subscribe today.