By Nicholas Wapshott, author of the book Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage
Margaret Thatcher was such a dominant figure during every moment of her 11 years in power that, even though everyone knew she was Britain’s first woman prime minister, it was hard to remember that behind the Thatcher myth was a real woman. But few who worked with her or close to her could ever doubt her femininity or her willingness to use her womanly wiles to get her way. She was happy to charm, flatter, coax, or bully, just so long as she won the day.
The traditional system of cabinet government in Britain soon fell to Thatcher’s method. For centuries, ministers who gathered around the prime minister operated as if they were members of an exclusive gentlemen’s club. Good manners were all important. Arguments were best avoided and differences well disguised. Reprimands were softened by a quiet word and a compensatory glass of sherry. Then in 1979 Margaret Thatcher got to sit in Winston Churchill’s chair in the cabinet room and she threw out the male traditions.
Leadership of the Iron Lady
Instead of acting as “primus inter pares” – first among equals – Thatcher led from the front. She had a radical agenda she wished to pursue, to reduce the size of the state, and she made clear she did not have time for argument. Surrounded in her cabinet by wealthy, landed aristocrats with pronounced liberal views, she threw aside convention and fiercely argued with them one-on-one. When she found she could not win them over, she ignored their views and took her own decision. Within two years, she fired the faint-hearts and promoted the obedient. Breaking the will of the men in her cabinet was the key to her relentlessly iron grip over the British government.
Outside the cabinet room, Margaret Thatcher could be enchanting. She tended to encourage tall, good looking, well groomed, elegantly dressed men – the Labour MP John Mackintosh, the Tories Humphrey Atkins, Cecil Parkinson and John Moore – and a string of her favorites were touted to succeed her, though few believed she intended to step aside for anyone. When her putative heirs fell by the wayside like hapless victims in an Agatha Christie mystery, she was compared to a female praying mantis who eats her partner after making love to them.
Those rare politicians who outsmarted her were kept in check with the sort of faint praise all mothers make and all sons hate. Geoffrey Howe, her foreign secretary and deputy prime minister, was humbled and diminished when Thatcher chose to lavishly praise the new sweater he had been given. Nigel Lawson, her most successful chancellor of the exchequer, was put in his place with, “Nigel, isn’t it about time you had a haircut?” As for encouraging other women, they were barely allowed a place at the cabinet table so long as Thatcher presided.
Margaret’s Family Life
One of Thatcher’s abiding regrets was that she did not spend enough time with her children when young. Indeed, on the day she discovered she was expecting twins she entered for the final law exams arguing that if she had not done so at that moment she would never have had the willpower to become a lawyer. Of her children, the wayward Mark was her unashamed favorite and Carol, who reminded her of her housewife mother, taken for granted. When in 1982 Mark went missing during a car rally in the Sahara, Thatcher openly wept. Though Carol tended to her mother in her dotage, she received only grudging thanks. “As a child I was frightened of her,” Carol complained. “I always felt I came second of the two.”
Thatcher was so energetic, she was incapable of taking a holiday. As education secretary she once returned home early from vacation and summoned her civil servants back to work. As prime minister, when Parliament took time off, she would hurriedly invent an important foreign trip and take the press along with her as company. Arriving at the plane, reporters were surprised to discover the prime minister plumping up their cushions.
On the flight home there was a traditional champagne celebration to mark the trip’s inevitable success. Once I offered to help her open a bottle and discovered Thatcher’s raw energy at first hand. She told me to stop fussing and sit down. I demurred. I was reluctant to sit in the prime minister’s throne and, in any case, if there was one thing I was good at it was opening champagne. She passed the bottle to her press secretary, placed her hands on my shoulders, and pushed me down into her chair. A shiver of excitement ran up my spine. It was my Mrs. Robinson moment.
About Nicholas Wapshott: An editor at the New York Sun and the former New York bureau chief for the Times of London, Wapshott was previously editor of The Saturday Times of London and founding editor of The Times Magazine. As political editor of The Observer, Wapshott covered Margaret Thatcher’s final years in office.