On the eve of the 25th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 general election triumph, Simon Heffer says the Iron Lady has a new spring in her step
In her 79th year, widowed after a long and happy marriage, and having endured indifferent health, Lady Thatcher might seem to some to have become vulnerable, damaged and a target for pity. Certainly, a spiteful profile of her in a Sunday newspaper a few weeks ago gave the impression that the Iron Lady was now like a cross between Miss Havisham and Lady Circumference, a mixture of the tragic and the absurd. Yet on the 25th anniversary of her triumph in the 1979 general election, Britain’s first woman prime minister — and the only one still to win three successive contests — is not in the mentally and physically reduced circumstances that her enemies would like to imagine.
She is inevitably older and, after a succession of minor strokes, inevitably frailer. However, the mighty spirit is not yet extinguished and, after a truly horrible year that included her husband’s death, Lady T is bouncing back. The occasion of this anniversary means much to her, and she is gladly playing a full part in events to commemorate it. Her appetite for a fight on issues that matter deeply to her — such as the Anglo-American relationship, or what she sees as the threat from Europe to our national sovereignty — is undiminished. She might now have those confrontations with friends and visitors in private rather than on public platforms, but the vigour with which she still holds such positions proves that the light is not yet extinguished.
It has long been a mystery to those who know Lady Thatcher why those who do not seem to hate her so. Not only is great pleasure taken in articles cataloguing an as yet largely fictional diminishment; she is also spoken of in spitting, hissing terms normally reserved for child-molesters, genocidal maniacs and President Bush. Her silver jubilee is provoking yet more such assessments, which seem to have more to do with the personal and ideological animus of those who write them than the actual quality of their subject. These days, few serious attempts are made not just to evaluate her political achievement, but to look at the reality of the woman behind them. She is simply Medusa the Gorgon. Her lifelong aversion to reading the newspapers looks more and more sensible.
The readiness to write her off had its impulse from an undoubted fact, and was accelerated by gleeful and unthinking malice. She passed through an undeniable, and undenied, bad patch last year. Sir Denis’s heart surgery and the relatively short illness after it, preceding his death last June, left her unprepared for her bereavement. Even before it her own health had not been strong, resulting in a ban by her doctors on public speaking, many fewer engagements and a greatly reduced schedule of travel. For a woman who has always been a workaholic and an evangelist, that would always have been hard to come to terms with. In the void that was created by Sir Denis’s death it was, even for one of her mental toughness, almost unbearable. For a few months she had the task not just of coping with that loss, but doing so against a background of poor health and without what most of us would conventionally regard as a hinterland. Life had, for almost ever, been work and Denis: now, in quick succession, both had gone.
For a while she tried to rally her spirits, as did her friends and family, but failed. Her husband’s magnificent memorial service in the Guards’ Chapel last October was an impressively tribal gathering, filled with a spirit of adoration as much for her as for him. Even on a day when she might have been expected to be under an enormous strain, her appearance shocked many of her friends. She seemed utterly lost and grief-stricken, something her immense resolve and determination to keep up appearances failed to conceal. She seemed only marginally to have recovered by the time of her Christmas drinks party in early December; and many were reluctantly writing her off as in an irreversible decline. She went off to South Africa to spend a few weeks with her son and his family, leaving behind her the great concern of her friends and staff for her future prospects.
Yet reports of her living death are greatly exaggerated. Her return from Cape Town was accompanied by a change of regime. As well as improved medication to treat the effects of her minor strokes, she has taken to having more exercise, and all who have seen her in the last couple of months have found her transformed. Inevitably, some things have changed: she doesn’t race round the globe any more lecturing adoring audiences on the joys of capitalism, the free market and national self-determination, and there won’t be any more books. Less than 18 months short of her 80th birthday, that should hardly be surprising. However, the blackest days are over. Her vulnerability, which seemed so deep-seated a few months ago, has now been thrown into reverse.
She attends the House of Lords frequently, usually in the devoted charge of her former protégé Michael (now Lord) Forsyth. She is moving her office to the Lords this week, a sign that she intends to immerse herself more, not less, in Parliament. She remains on the guest list at formal banquets, and attends them whenever she can. She enjoys going out to parties, not least of all to meet people and to rediscover an appetite for life. Statesmen coming to London tell the Foreign Office that they would like to see her, and meetings are always willingly arranged, either at her present offices in Knightsbridge or her home nearby in Belgravia. She combs the news broadcasts for information on what is happening here and in the world, and reads widely. Friends were recently treated to a penetrating analysis of the Hutton report, in which she was sternly critical of the judge. By way of relaxation she listens to music, especially opera, and goes out to visit friends. With both her physical and mental strength recovered, she is determined to carry on the fight.
She remains in constant touch with what is going on in the Conservative party. Tory MPs like Bill Cash, John Whittingdale or Gerald Howarth drop in to see her. So too do people from the old days, like Norman Tebbit and Cecil Parkinson. She has good relations with the new leader, Michael Howard. It is not generally known that in 1997 she privately promised to endorse Mr Howard in the leadership contest won by William Hague. By the time she was supposed to be enlisted in the fight Mr Howard had been knocked out, and she endorsed the ill-fated Mr Hague instead. The pain of her treatment by her party in 1990 has never completely been anaesthetised, but neither is it the festering wound it was a decade ago. She is sure of her achievements and proud of her legacy. Yet, paradoxically in light of that, she remains a self-effacing, charming, polite woman in private, never seeking to be the centre of attention — though of course she cannot help but be in almost every setting — and with an immense humanity that her critics simply refuse to believe exists. Her sincerity and basic decency illustrate one of the most important and fundamental truths about her, that she was never in it for herself. Perhaps that is what makes her so hard to understand by others who cannot help but assume that all politicians have an ulterior motive for everything they do, and who think therefore that her ulterior motives must have been as colossal as her impact.
For one who was supposedly in the departure lounge until quite recently, her diary looks surprisingly full. Next Tuesday a grand celebration banquet is being thrown for her in London, which will be attended by hundreds of former colleagues, friends and admirers. She is not allowed to make speeches in public, but nobody expects her to obey that injunction on that very special evening. Although more relaxation is now written into her schedule, she will be meeting a steady stream of the great and g ood in the months ahead. And although she has had to cut down on travelling she will be venturing abroad again, notably to America, and the trip will be for business as well as pleasure.
For a time the top table of the Conservative party felt that Lady Thatcher was an embarrassment to them. They felt that she enjoyed an unpopularity that could only rub off on them, as if their own had scope to become much worse. They felt she was identified with policies and attitudes that were detrimental to the party: yet now it is hard to see what she stood for that Michael Howard himself does not stand for. His own unequivocal opposition to the EU constitution is precisely the sort of hard-line stand on the question for which she lost her job 14 years ago. Lady Thatcher’s staff and friends zealously protect her, and in particular protect her from anything that might harm her or her reputation. She, for her part, has no wish to interfere, and certainly not to do anything that might impede the election of a Tory government. Oddly enough, her very visible suffering over the last year has softened some of the prejudiced attitudes to her within her own party, and there has been much sympathy for her among a wider public that does not enjoy political backbiting. She has always, since her first great triumph a quarter of a century ago, had an iconic status within the Conservative movement. Now it is restored and burnished with deepening affection. And, happily, unlike many other such transformations, she has not had to wait for it to be achieved posthumously.