Poor Old Girl. The final act may not have been sanglante, but as the third volume of Charles Moore’s life of Margaret Thatcher makes clear, it was sad. It may seem unwise to expend great praise on a contemporary book before time has had a chance to lend perspective: not in this case. Time’s verdict can be anticipated with confidence. Boswell apart — sui generis — this might be the finest biography in the language.
Alas, the final volume is also a story of decline. It did not help that the Lady was sacked with as little ceremony as a cleaning woman guilty of plundering the gin bottle. But a more dignified exit would still have hurt. Until her health declined, she was producing more adrenaline than she could consume: constantly feeling a gnawing frustration that she was no longer at the centre of events. Charles Powell said ‘she never had a happy day after being ousted from office’. Charles Moore doubts whether that was literally true, but even if there were hours when she could distract herself, the pain was never far from the surface. In last week’s Spectator, Charles Moore wrote that in politics, Boris Johnson was only suited to the top job. The same was true of Mrs Thatcher. Her period as education secretary under Ted Heath was unmemorable. She did nothing to disrupt the leftists’ Gramscian long march through the educational institutions (a neglect which persisted during her premiership). As leader of the opposition, she was often out-gunned by Jim Callaghan.
The prospect of a Thatcher premiership filled many Tories with foreboding, especially as a failure by her could open the gates to the Bennite left. I have never come across anyone who can claim to have predicted her glorious emergence as a world–historical figure. Those middle years of triumph made the ultimate defenestration all the more painful.
After she left Downing Street, she did acquire an outstandingly loyal and dedicated political secretary, Mark Worthington. His verdict: ‘The Almighty had shaped her to be prime minister, but not to do anything else. She was made to sit there and take decisions. If there were no decisions to take, she did not know what to do.’
There is one delightful story in this volume which contradicts an impression she often gave of taking no interest in wine. I can remember a couple of Sunday Telegraph lunches at which I ensured that serious wine was available. She hardly touched a drop. Indeed, she sometimes had to be gently dissuaded from serving English wine at important dinners. These days, there are English champagnes which would not disgrace a dinner table in Downing Street: not back then.
But there was no question ofEnglish wine at a dinner she gave for Ronald Reagan not long after the end of his presidency. Unlike the UK, the US provides for dignified political exits. Who knows? That might even apply to Donald Trump. Anyway, her beloved Ronnie was an oenophile. So he was greeted with Bollinger 1982, Pétrus 1970, Warre’s 1945 and an 1878 Grands Fins Bois Cognac. He was delighted — so he should have been — and felt honoured, which he thoroughly deserved.
Perhaps in an attempt to make Mr Reagan feel at home, there was also a Matanzas Creek Californian Chardonnay. That was a sweet gesture, but an unnecessary one. He could drink wines like that at home. In London, it ought to have been a Montrachet.
Did Mrs T partake? History does not relate, but one suspects only in sips. Denis would have done; the snorts could wait for later. But it is pleasant to think of president and prime minister enjoying such great wines, in the afterglow of his eight years and while she was still in the saddle.