8 May 2013 at 09:00
This is an extract from my new book MEMORIES OF MARGARET THATCHER, which is published today. A new extract will appear at 9am every day this week. The book contains 215 such essays by people from all walks of life who encountered the Iron Lady. You can order a signed copy of the book HERE
By Dr Liam Fox MP
The first time I remember physically seeing Margaret Thatcher was at a speech she gave in Scotland while still Leader of the Opposition. As a Young Conservative it was not only the first time that I had ever seen a major politician speak live but it was particularly exciting as it was Margaret Thatcher who had drawn me into the Conservative party. Coming from a very ordinary background in the West of Scotland, you didn’t join the Conservative party because you were a political careerist! It was the stark differences between the language and imagery of Margaret Thatcher and other politicians of the day which first grabbed my attention. Up till that point, in gloomy and failing Britain, there was still too much of a feeling that whatever pigeonhole you had been born into was where you should stay. It was Margaret Thatcher’s liberating views on social mobility that made me a Conservative and I remember, to this day, that it was the conviction and energy that she brought to her arguments that impressed me just as much as the political messages themselves.
Almost a decade later, when I was the Prospective Conservative candidate in the constituency of Roxburgh and Berwickshire, I had the first opportunity to have a one-to-one conversation with a woman who was now at the height of her political power. She had just had surgery on her hand for a Dupuytren’s contracture and as trainee GP I made sure I had swotted up on all the details in case it came up in conversation. As it turned out, it would be the cause of me receiving the Thatcher grip on the wrist, so beautifully described by the Bishop of London at her funeral service. I explained to her that there was some belief that the Papal blessing, with the last two fingers drawn into the palm, was the result of a mediaeval Pope having the same medical condition and being unable to extend his fingers as had traditionally been done up to that point. She looked at me and said “really?”. Not understanding the significance of the question I simply nodded back. She turned the full Thatcher –ray straight at me and said “really”. At this point the prime ministerial grip was brought into full force as she put down my cutlery and asked me – more of a command than a question – for the third time “really?”. Realising that she was either genuinely interested or suspected me of pulling a fast one, I said with all the sincerity I could muster “yes prime minister – really”.
Momentous political and personal events were already dissolving into history when I spent an evening with Margaret Thatcher in New York in the new millennium. We were attending a reception for the Anglo-American group, the Atlantic bridge where the guests included both Michael Ancram and Michael Howard. It was a very special occasion because we all knew it might be the last time she would speak to an audience in America, particularly poignant as she had such a high regard for the United States, believing it to be a flagship in the battle for liberty and the rule of law. It was difficult for her as she had recently lost Denis and had suffered a number of minor strokes. I had the pleasure of introducing her and said “for most of us we get to hear about history or to read about history. Seldom, do any of us have the honour of meeting with history”.
Those who have never known Margaret Thatcher well might be surprised at the humility she genuinely possessed and she want quite misty eyed, saying “no, no, not at all – that is just too kind”. She had a short prepared text to read and we wondered if she would be able to deliver it yet within minutes not only had she recovered her full Thatcher poise but had gone off the text to give us a short, impromptu lecture on the importance of the relationship between Britain and the United States. It was the last time that I was to see the echoes that I had heard as a young conservative in Glasgow – and it was magnificent. An hour or so later, we were sitting together in the back of her official car as we waited to go off to the dinner we were attending. She suddenly turned and asked me “remind me, dear, of the name of our host”. I replied his name is Mr Mallory Factor. Inexplicably, she then added “is he related to Max Factor?. “Why on earth would you ask a question like that?” I replied. “I just wondered” she said with a smile “if he might have any free samples for an old lady”. I didn’t know what to say. One of her long serving bodyguards sitting at the front looked in the rear-view mirror and said, in what can only be described as astonishment “she told a joke!”. We all laughed, perhaps all for different reasons.
The last time I had the pleasure of spending any time with her was when she did me the honour of attending my 50th birthday party in Admiralty House in London in September 2011. Being in poor health by this time, it was suggested that she should only attend for 20 to 30 minutes as she would be too tired. She was having none of it. Surrounded by many people that she had known well and many more who simply wanted to have the chance of a fleeting encounter with her, and bolstered by more glasses of white wine than those accompanying her would have liked, she played the room like the old trooper she was. To his great credit, Prime Minister David Cameron who was also present, simply melted into the background leaving the field clear as she swept all before her. The last conversation about politics that I had with her was as we walked through the room. “You must be feeling quite vindicated about the euro” I said. “Why so” she replied. “Well, it’s looking pretty shaky”. She stopped. “Is it really?” “Well, it’s not looking too healthy” I suggested. Slowly moving off, she added “well dear, we’ll not be too sad, shall we?”
As I sat, like so many, in the crypt Chapel of the House of Commons where her coffin was resting and again at her funeral in St Paul’s I couldn’t help think about all the politicians, commentators and pundits who constantly ask “who will be the next Thatcher?”. Their search is in vain. They will not find one.