Margaret Thatcher is the reason I became actively involved in politics. She inspired me, as a sixteen year old, to join the Conservative Party and do my bit to help revive Britain. One of the tasks of today’s political leaders is to provide a lead, to inspire, to motivate. Margaret Thatcher was able to do that in a way few politicians in this country have been able to emulate. My first tentative footstep into the political arena was to set up a Conservative organization in 1982 at the very left-wing University of East Anglia. Only a few months later followed my first encounter with Margaret Thatcher when she invited the chairmen of the various University Conservative Associations to a reception at Number Ten.
For a country boy like me, it was unbelievable to have been invited and it was something I had been looking forward to for months. Just to climb those stairs, with the portraits of all past Prime Ministers on the walls was worth the trip on its own. And there at the top of the stairs was the Prime Minister. She had obviously perfected the art of welcoming people to receptions and as she shook you by the hand and wished you a good evening, she moved you on into the room without you even knowing she was doing it. Most of the Cabinet were there – I remember discussing with Cecil Parkinson the number of free running shoes he had been sent after a recent profile had announced to the world that he was a keen runner. He offered me a pair but it turned out his feet were much smaller than mine! We were constantly plied with wine and I made a mental note to stop at two glasses. But after the second glass was emptied I felt rather self-conscious without a glass in my hand so grabbed another. Just as the Prime Minister walked by I took a sip. All I remember is my stomach heaving and me thinking that I was about to throw up at the Prime Minister’s feet, thus ending a glorious political career which had hardly got off the ground. Luckily I managed to control my stomach and all was well. It turned out that it was whisky in the glass, rather than white wine.
Later in the evening, as I was talking to my local MP, Alan Haselhurst, the division bell sounded. Although there were at least 40 MPs there, none made a move to leave to go and vote over the road in the House of Commons. Mrs Thatcher started to look rather irritated and was obviously none too impressed. In the end she walked to the middle of the room, took off one of her shoes and banged it on the floor. There was instance silence. The Prime Minister then spoke. ‘Would all Conservative MPs kindly leave the building immediately,’ she instructed. ‘And the rest of us will stay and enjoy ourselves!’ Naturally we all laughed uproariously, enjoying the sight of the MPs trooping out of the room in a somewhat sheepish manner.
After I graduated I went to work at the House of Commons as a researcher for a Norfolk Member of Parliament. He was not a particularly well known MP and never courted publicity. He had a marginal seat and devoted himself to his constituency rather than join the rent-a-quote mob. It served him well as he held his seat for the next two elections. If ever there was an MP less likely to be involved in sleaze it was him. But one day, a careless error by me left him open to charges of dirty dealing. We ran a businessmen’s club in the constituency, called The Westminster Circle. It served two purposes – one to keep the MP in touch with local businesses, and secondly to raise a little money for the very poor constituency association. For £100 a year business people joined and were given a dinner in the House of Commons, usually addressed by a Cabinet Minister, and another dinner in the constituency, addressed by a more junior Minister. These clubs were common in all parties up and down the country. But in a publicity leaflet designed to attract new members I had used the phrase ‘with direct access to government ministers’. By this I had meant that they would be able to meet and speak to a government minister at the dinner. In those pre ‘cash for questions’ days we were all rather innocent. But it proved to be my undoing – and very nearly my employer’s.
Early one Tuesday afternoon he found out that at that day’s Prime Minister’s Question Time, the Liberal leader, David Steel, would raise this subject with the Prime Minister. He immediately went to see her in her office behind the Speaker’s Chair. He must have been quaking in his boots but he later told me she had been brilliant. She sat him down, offered him a coffee and heard him out. She did not disguise her dislike for Steel and thought it typical of him to operate in this manner. She told him she would let Steel have both barrels, and of course she did! He returned to the Office after PM’s Question Time and related the events of the day to me. I had been completely oblivious, which was just as well as I would no doubt have been having a premonition of what a P45 looks like.
A few months later I was having lunch with a couple of Tory MPs in the Members’ Cafeteria. We had just finished our lunch when in walked Mrs T and her entourage. She grabbed a tray and chose a light lunch of Welsh Rarebit. Unfortunately, as we had finished, I did not have cause to hang around too much longer so left the room, cursing that we had decided to have an early lunch. A few minutes later I realised I had left some papers and magazines on the table in the cafeteria and returned to retrieve them. As luck would have it, the Thatcher group had sat themselves at the table we had been sitting at and Mrs T had her elbow plonked on my papers. I decided to summon up the courage and interrupt them to ask for my papers. Just as I had started I looked down at the pile of papers and to my horror saw that my copy of the new issue of Private Eye was on the top of them and the front cover had a particularly nasty photo of Denis Thatcher. Mrs Thatcher cottoned on to what I wanted, removed her elbow and gazed down at the offending magazine. My heart stopped. ‘Oh, Private Eye, Denis loves it,’ she gushed. To my eternal shame, I just picked it up, along with the rest of the papers, made my excuses and left. What a wimp.
In 1995 I took an American friend, Daniel Forrester, to the T E Utley Young Journalist of the Year awards at the Reform Club. Lady Thatcher had been invited to present the awards. She treated us to a half hour impromptu speech on political issues of the moment, which seemed to go by in about five minutes – quite an achievement as her entire audience had to remain standing throughout. After she had finished Daniel whispered to me: ‘I have to meet her, what should I do?’ Knowing of her penchant for strapping 6 feet tall dark haired American men I encouraged him to go and introduce himself. He suddenly got cold feet so eventually I dragged him over to where she was talking to several of the award winners. In typically American style he launched into a sycophantic introduction which immediately attracted her attention. ‘Mrs Thatcher,’ he began. I kicked him. ‘Er, Lady Thatcher,’ he hurriedly corrected himself, ‘May I say how much our country misses your leadership….’ and he continued in that vain for a few seconds. While he was speaking, the diminutive figure of the Iron Lady (for she is much smaller in height than most people imagine) stared up at him, her eyes never leaving his. When he had finally finished having his say, Lady Thatcher hardly paused for breath. ‘Your President, President Clinton.’ She paused, heightening the drama for our American friend. ‘He is a great communicator.’ Up came the forefinger, almost prodding Daniel’s chest. Then in a particularly contemptuous tone, came the pièce de résistance. ‘The trouble is, he has absolutely nothing to communicate.’ With that she was away. It was almost a flounce. Daniel eventually came down from whichever cloud he had been on – probably nine – and said, ‘I’ll remember that for the rest of my life’ – and as a well-known critic of Bill Clinton, has been dining out on it ever since.
Another encounter came at a retirement party for ITN’s much missed political editor Michael Brunson. My friend Alan Duncan, the Tory MP for Rutland, started a conversation with her and she suddenly asked where Denis had disappeared off to as they had to leave for a dinner. Being of diminutive stature, and me being over six feet tall he asked me to scan the room. Both of them looked at me expectantly. To my horror I spied Denis on the other side of the room talking to Michael Heseltine. I summoned up all the courage at my disposal and explained where he was. Lady Thatcher’s eyes became even bluer than normal and she exclaimed:‘Denis and I are having dinner with Cap Weinberger tonight. I think he’s rather more important than THAT man, don’t you?! If Denis isn’t over here within one minute I shall go over and stare at them.’ Luckily for Michael Heseltine, she didn’t have to.
Early in 2005 I invited Lady Thatcher to come to a fundraising party to raise money for my campaign as Conservative candidate in North Norfolk. To my delight she accepted and on a cold March evening turned up on time to work a room of fifty friends and political acquaintances. And boy did she work! She was particularly pleased to meet the teenagers present, including one with a particularly eye catching piece of metal face jewelry. My task for the evening was to guide Lady T around the room so she could meet everyone. It was a thankless task. The Iron Lady decided where she was going and no amount of me tugging at her elbow was going to persuade her otherwise!
And then, in November 2005 I launched my book, Margaret Thatcher: A Tribute in Words & Pictures, at a function in the City of London, kindly hosted by the Corporation of London. Lady Thatcher agreed to attend and made a point of speaking to everyone in the room while she was there. Especially poignant for me, was the sight of her having a protracted chat with my two nieces, Isabella and Ophelia Hunter, who were then aged ten and six. It was a very touching moment as they posed for pictures. It brought back a memory from 1988, when my cousin Nicola’s daughter Emma – then an infant – asked her mother: ‘Mummy, can a man be Prime Minister?’ She soon found out that the answer was no. …
The last time I spoke to Lady Thatcher was in January 2009 when I went to the Carlton Club for a drinks party hosted by Liam Fox. I was delighted to see Lady Thatcher arrive and looking absolutely fantastic. For a woman of eighty-three and supposedly in frail health, she looked absolutely stunning. I had a couple of minutes talking to her and told her it was twenty-six years to the day that I first met her at a reception for Conservative students at 10 Downing Street. ‘I think I remember that,’ she said. ‘It was so nice to see so many young people in the building. That didn’t happen very often.’ We talked a little about newspapers and she said: ‘I never read them. I had Bernard to do it for me.’ Everyone needs a Bernard…
As I left the Carlton Club, a thought struck me. If Lady T were in her heyday and had to take over as Prime Minister now, what would she do? If I had asked her, I know exactly what her reply would have been. ‘Restore sound money, dear,’ she would have said. And you know what? She’d have been dead right.
Like others I’m devastated by her death. I spoke to Keith Simpson MP earlier. He described her death as the end of an era. He was right.
What memories! What a woman! What a Prime Minister!