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Authors: Gillian Shephard

The Real Iron Lady

BOOK: The Real Iron Lady
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  1. Title Page
  2. Acknowledgements
  3. Prologue

  5. 1. ‘Idleness was a sin.’
  6. 2. ‘Never forget, dear, that it is the
    which is important.’
  7. 3. ‘There was always a little danger about her, apprehension of a damning put-down or memorable eruption.’
  8. 4. ‘Maggie had a huge sense of personal loyalty and personal responsibility.’
  9. 5. ‘I hope that one quality in which I am not lacking is courage.’
  10. 6. ‘Once you have been a candidate, everything else palls.’
  11. 7. ‘Elle a les yeux de Stalin et la voix de Marilyn Monroe.’
  12. 8. ‘She was forced to behave like an outsider for the simple reason that she was one.’
  13. 9. ‘With Denis there I was never alone. What a man. What a husband. What a friend.

  14. 10. ‘Women should aim high, in politics not least.


  16. Epilogue:
    Sic transit gloria mundi
  17. Appendix
  18. Contributors
  19. Bibliography
  20. I
  21. Plates
  22. Copyright

he production of this book has been made possible by the willing and generous help from thirty-six former colleagues, friends and observers of Margaret Thatcher. Without exception, they responded with alacrity and enthusiasm to my request for their recollections of what it was like to work with the ‘real’ Iron Lady. Their accounts, which are shown in italicised text, provide the core of this book and, I hope, its originality. The excellence of their work has made it possible for me to set it into a historical context and to record my own recollections and thoughts. Thanks to them, the book is fuller and more authoritative than I had thought possible.

Lord Howe of Aberavon kindly selected particularly relevant extracts from his book
Conflict of Loyalty
for me to include, and was happy for me to quote from other parts of that book. Sir John Major, in describing Margaret Thatcher as a ‘woman of contrasts’ in the piece he wrote
for this book, provided its theme; he also gave me access to useful passages from his autobiography. Michael Brunson provided a sparkling account of Mrs Thatcher’s relationship with the media, and his autobiography,
A Ringside Seat
, gave more illustrations of the media’s attitude towards her, which he made available to me. Lord Cormack, a distinguished former editor of
The House
magazine, allowed me to quote extensively from an interview Margaret Thatcher gave to the magazine in December 1990, two weeks after she stood down, and this forms an authoritative part of the epilogue of this book.

Lord Tyler kindly put me in touch with Ian Beesley, who provided a fascinating civil service insight into working with Margaret Thatcher when she was Prime Minister. Ian Beesley dedicates his contribution to the memory of Clive Priestley, who died in January 2012. Ian succeeded Clive Priestley as Head of the Efficiency Unit in 1983 and writes, ‘Clive was “Chief of Staff”, as he liked to put it, to Derek Rayner, and was highly thought of by Mrs T.’ Especially for Chapter 7, ‘Elle a les yeux de Stalin et la voix de Marilyn Monroe’, Dr Sophie Loussouarn interviewed Hubert Védrine, former adviser to President Mitterand, and later French Foreign Minister. Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked her daughter, Sarah Joiner, if she would provide her recollections of working in Mrs Thatcher’s first general election campaign, which she kindly agreed to do.

The editor of the
Eastern Daily Press
generously agreed
to the reproduction, in the prologue of this book, of the whole of an article from that paper, dated 15 January 1974, describing a visit to Norfolk by Margaret Thatcher when she was Education Secretary. I am also indebted to the
Sunday Times
for allowing me to quote from an article by India Knight (20 November 2011). India Knight’s frank admission of her change of attitude towards Margaret Thatcher gave me the inspiration for this book, and the way I approached it. Sarah Baxter also provided invaluable assistance in helping me to contact the
Sunday Times

Oral reminiscences came from Lady Ralphs; Allan Rogers, formerly MP for the Rhondda; Sir Donald Stringer; and Milburn Talbot. Mrs Patricia Ramsay, although not directly quoted in the book, gave valuable anecdotes from her friendship with both Denis and Margaret Thatcher.

I have had sterling support from Biteback Publishing, particularly from Hollie Teague and also from Sam Carter and Olivia Beattie. Iain Dale also gave encouragement at all times. Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield gave me
carte blanche
to quote from any of his relevant books, read the manuscript and gave invaluable advice. Keith Simpson MP, with his cheerful encouragement, not only kept me going through some of the longueurs of writing, but also provided the vivid account of a special advisers’ meeting at No. 10 in 1988. My stepson, Professor Neil Shephard, read the manuscript and suggested some important changes in emphasis.

Heartfelt thanks are due to the staff of the House of
Lords Library, who willingly and rapidly researched details of dates and parliamentary occasions, and also to the staff of the Swaffham Branch of the Norfolk County Library for obtaining and renewing important reference works. My PA, Margaret West, was, as always, a tower of strength.

Jason Pink helped at key technological moments.

Very special thanks are due to my husband, who put up with the year devoted to this book with his customary good cheer.


o read the headline in the
Eastern Daily Press
on Tuesday 15 January 1974. There is no by-line, but a box encloses the words, ‘A male colleague covering the visit of Mrs Thatcher to Norfolk last week-end was so impressed by her mastery of facts and femininity that he here gives credit in print – where credit is obviously due!’

Margaret Thatcher was combining official and political duties on a visit to Norfolk and Cambridgeshire on Friday 11 and Saturday 12 January 1974. This was the first time I met her. I was at that time a senior education officer working for the Norfolk County Council, and it had been my job to organise the Norfolk part of the visit, which included the official opening of a new first school, and a tour of other schools, a college, an education study centre in the Broads and an adult education centre in the
centre of Norwich. Everyone I knew within the educational world was intrigued by the Secretary of State. She was already a controversial figure. Many were far from supportive, but the then Norfolk Chief Education Officer, Sir Lincoln Ralphs, himself an influential figure on the national education scene, admired her ideas and her vigorous approach. The feeling may have been mutual. Even in those days, it would have been unusual for a Secretary of State to spend a day and a half in one education authority.

The tours were complex and involved many miles of travelling in the rural county, but thankfully my careful arrangements, including the timings, worked, and the weather, although freezing as usual in a Norfolk winter, did not complicate matters.

Eastern Daily Press
reporter takes up the tale.

It is ten o’clock on Friday morning at Hethersett and Education Minister Mrs Thatcher is formally opening the Woodside First School. She is bright and alert, relaxed and charming, faultlessly groomed and dressed with careful simplicity in a plain, short-sleeved dress with one small ornament on the shoulder.

During the rest of the day she will be visiting three other schools in mid-Norfolk, then driving across to King’s Lynn to see the technical college. Finally to a political dinner in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, before returning to Norwich to stay the night.

Saturday morning finds her, on the dot at 9.30, at Thorpe
Grammar School, on the outskirts of Norwich. Then out to How Hill to see the county’s study centre in the heart of the Broads. Finally back into Norwich to Wensum Lodge, the adult education centre.

And throughout that time a close observer would find her taking a real interest in everything she sees, with time for a word with everyone, from tiny kids to prosy local worthies.

‘So what?’ you might say. ‘All that should be in the line of duty for a Minister.’

But before you reach that conclusion, it might be useful to add that on Thursday, the day before she came to Norfolk, Mrs Thatcher had a morning Cabinet meeting in London. The afternoon and evening were spent in the House of Commons, voting in a crucial economy debate. She left the House at 10.30 p.m., drove to Liverpool Street Station – and arrived at Norwich at 1.36 a.m.

In other words, she had about five hours of sleep before her gruelling Friday began. And while this reporter managed to get a snatched five-minute interview with her before she left for London at lunchtime on Saturday, she was still as relaxed and fluent as if she were settled in a comfortable chair in her own drawing room with an hour to spare for a chat.

On arriving back in London, she had a quick dash to the shops to get some provisions in for the weekend. For Margaret Thatcher still runs her own London home with only a daily help coming in a few mornings a week.

‘Just how do you do it?’ we asked. ‘It is a matter of having the right constitution,’ she said in a matter-of-fact way which indicated that she herself didn’t see anything particularly special in her demanding routine. ‘Happily, I happen to have that constitution,’ she adds with a grin.

And the family? ‘We always have breakfast together, no matter what. And no matter how late it is when I’m in London, I see my husband and family at the end of the day. I always see there is plenty of food in the fridge. So when I’m not around it is no hardship for them to help themselves.’

Margaret Thatcher spent her two brief nights during the tour with Sir Lincoln and Lady Ralphs at their home in Norwich. Lady Ralphs recalls Mrs T. discussing which dress she should wear for the school opening and visits – she had brought several with her. Finally a red one was chosen, as ‘children like red’. As one who also spent a fair amount on the road as Secretary of State for Education, I am deeply impressed by the fact that she not only found time to pack a choice of clothes, but also to discuss which outfit would be most suited to a school visit. She also went out of her way to chat to Lady Ralphs’s elderly mother, who was keen to meet the famous guest staying in the house.

My own memories of the occasion are somewhat blurred by my anxiety that everything should go smoothly. An additional complication at the time was that we were in the period of the three-day week, with electricity cuts occurring at any moment.

Photographs reveal her looking relaxed and professional, and me looking somewhat fraught, and unsuitably dressed for a cold January day, in what appears to be an unfashionable spring ensemble. Mrs Thatcher’s appearance, on the other hand, won praise from the
Eastern Daily Press
reporter. The caption accompanying her photograph in the article read, ‘Mrs Thatcher ideally dressed for Norfolk with a warm, fur-trimmed top coat and simple, elegant day dress to take her through numerous appointments.’

All the qualities of Margaret Thatcher, which, together with her flaws, are the subject of this book, were on show and perceived by the anonymous
Eastern Daily Press
reporter that January in 1974: her professionalism, attention to detail, immaculate appearance, regard for parliamentary conventions and, seemingly, an indefatigable constitution. She would go far, we all thought.

Just over a year later, on 11 February 1975, she did. She became Leader of the Conservative Party, and Britain’s first woman Prime Minister in waiting.

It was another twelve years before I went into national politics. My life changed completely in 1975: I married, acquired two stepsons aged ten and fourteen, gave up my professional career and started another in local government. I was impelled to become an MP more out of curiosity about the exercise of power and a desire to change things than because I had been inspired by my encounter with Margaret Thatcher, that January in 1974. Even so, her astonishing rise to become Britain’s first woman
Prime Minister and the extraordinary mix of brute force and glamour that she brought to the role were intriguing, as was her ability to run a government and, at the same time, to identify with the concerns of men and women in the street.

Even now, I wonder if the extent of her achievement in becoming Britain’s first woman Prime Minister is fully appreciated. When she first entered the House of Commons in October 1959 as the newly elected member for Finchley there were just twelve women Conservative MPs. The odds against her, or any of the other women members, achieving high office, let alone becoming Prime Minister, were overwhelming. Even by 1987, when I entered the Commons and when Margaret Thatcher was nearing the end of her period in office, while 609 men were returned in that election, only an astonishingly tiny number of women – 139 in all – were returned during the whole of the seventy years since women had sat in the House.

There was a similar incredible imbalance in women’s representation in the professions and on company boards, examined by a Commission set up by the Hansard Society and published in a report entitled ‘Women at the Top’ in 1989. There were, for example, only two women Permanent Secretaries within the civil service, no women Law Lords at all and one out of a total of eighty-one High Court Judges. Only 3 per cent of university professors were women and at Oxford only 14 per cent of fellows were women; Cambridge did even worse with
a mere 8 per cent. Until 1988, there had never been a woman on the BBC Senior Management Committee. The picture was no better in the business world: of the companies taking part in the Hansard survey, 81 per cent had no woman at all on their main board. And even on the Trades Union Congress, only fifteen seats out of a possible fifty-three were held by women.

This was the context in which Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister.

As is usual in political life, chance and mishap played quite a substantial role in the course of events which led to her being elected Leader of the Conservative Party. And once she was elected, there were profound misgivings within the party at all levels about whether she, a woman, could actually do the job. There was an enormous amount of prejudice against her, private sneers from some colleagues and from the overwhelmingly male Establishment in Britain.

All Prime Ministers attract harsh and constant criticism. It is part of the job. Margaret Thatcher’s critics included those who, legitimately, opposed her policies and her politics – and her sometimes overbearing manner. But one is forced to conclude that others criticised her because of her gender. These critics included some of her close male colleagues whose experience of women was limited to wives, sisters, daughters and secretaries, and who simply had no professional experience of working with women as equals and certainly not as their superiors. Some of the
accounts in this book make it clear that their response was to mock and brief behind her back. Legends and myths about Margaret Thatcher endure, but it is perhaps salutary for critics and admirers alike to reflect on the sheer scale of her achievement in becoming Prime Minister in the Britain of the 1970s and 80s.

I was in the House of Commons for only the last two years of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. I can make no claim to have known her, except from afar, or to have been especially favoured by her despite having been appointed by her to my first extremely junior post. However, even from that lowly position, it was possible to perceive that she was able to combine a ferocious appetite for work and the all-important detail of how policies would actually work, with an iron grasp of strategy and long-term aims. I would not claim that this combination of abilities could only be found in a woman leader; on the other hand, no male boss I had, either before or subsequently, had it.

When preparing this book, I decided therefore to ask the contributors if they would concentrate in their accounts on Margaret Thatcher’s work habits and her attention to detail, and add any experiences they might have had of her personal kindness or indeed the reverse. I have been overwhelmed by the richness of what they have written and humbled by the care they have taken to give a faithful picture of a woman with whom all of them, without exception, worked more closely than I had the opportunity to do so.

From their accounts, in addition to descriptions of Margaret Thatcher’s working practices and countless anecdotes of her personal kindnesses and public furies, other themes have emerged. Her courage is demonstrated over and over again, not just, outstandingly, in the Brighton bomb outrage, but in the Falklands War, where she knew that failure would mean the absolute end of her political career and reputation; in the Miners’ Strike and in her confrontations with the trade unions. In today’s cynical world, it is touching, however inappropriate that word may seem when applied to Margaret Thatcher, to realise that to the end of her career she retained her belief in and passion for the political process. She combined an intense and unashamed femininity with an ability to cut to the essential issues and make the hard choices; she saw no conflict in that combination. I have particularly enjoyed discovering her pleasure in being an outsider, one who triumphed in spite of, and not because of, her background; and learning more about her international impact, which exists still. Her loyalty and devotion to Denis, her family and close friends and colleagues, and her inimical hostility to those she considered her enemies illustrate someone whom Sir John Major describes, so aptly, as a ‘woman of contrasts indeed’.

BOOK: The Real Iron Lady
10.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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