Denis: a sound judge of men who chose a great woman
By W.F. Deedes
Those who remember the letters in Private Eye that Denis Thatcher wrote his pal Bill during Margaret Thatcher's tenancy of 10 Downing Street may well have thought they knew just what sort of a man he was: a genial fellow with one or two slightly disreputable pals, in awe of his wife, fond of golf and even fonder of a glass of gin.
The caricature was politically useful. It made it difficult for journalists seriously to infer that Denis had the smallest influence on his wife's policies. But it was a caricature, not the portrait of a man who, all through his wife's career, chose a self–effacing role, revealing relatively little of himself even to friends, let alone the news media.
In a world in which so many figures in the public eye strive to make themselves bigger than they are, Denis Thatcher set about doing the reverse, which made him a difficult character to read.
Some of us will remember him not as a man who stood in awe of his wife, but who so admired her that much of his own life became dedicated to her best interests. When we were on golfing holidays and slightly boring people asked for his autograph, he smiled upon them and signed their books – always with a fountain pen, never a ballpoint – because it was furthering the interests of "the blessed Margaret", as he sometimes called her.
This, I came to see, was a closer partnership than the world ever guessed. To the casual acquaintance, Denis Thatcher's principal talent lay in his ability to read a balance sheet upside down and then pronounce on what was wrong with each of the directors. It came naturally to him. He had been brought up in a family business, a company that traded in paint and other products founded by his grandfather.
But as his wife must have known from their earliest days together, his value as a friend, philosopher and guide lay in deep–rooted common sense. Most of us think we are blessed with common sense – until we put our foot in it. Denis Thatcher had more opportunities than any man alive to put his foot in it during his wife's 12–year occupation of 10 Downing Street. Furthermore he was under the constant scrutiny of the "vipers" – as he described journalists. Yet he rarely attracted a headline.
He was a sound judge of men, helped as some of us were by experience in the wartime Army, but also by his principal recreation, which was refereeing rugby matches – a field in which he almost qualified at international level. He put me right on such judgments about mutual acquaintances once or twice, but I cannot remember faulting him. "I said to my woman" – as the blessed Margaret sometimes became – "I said, that chap's a wrong 'un." His ability to sum up people who crossed the political scene was one of the gifts he brought to the marriage partnership.
All prime ministers need a trustworthy friend with whom, when the day has quietened down, they can privately discuss their innermost feelings and look for sensible advice. Often for Mrs Thatcher the day never quietened down. But she found time to consult.
Part of his value to her can be traced from a short sentence in Carol Thatcher's biography of her father, describing the earliest years in her mother's political career. "Denis says: `She stood for Dartford twice and lost twice and the second time she cried on my shoulder I married her." In later years there were other occasions when there were tears to dry.
Stanley Baldwin spoke of the loneliness of Number 10, where prime ministers may be called on to take decisions alone, and accept sole responsibility for them. Margaret Thatcher had her share of those, particularly when Denis was overseas on business, as he was when she made her maiden speech in the Commons. But he was there to share some of the burdens. This was a marriage strengthened by the rare degree of trust that one partner felt able to repose in the other.
For Denis Thatcher, the loneliness of Number 10 was hardly less acute than it was for his wife, though in a different sense. There would be international gatherings in London or at Chequers where his presence was simply not wanted. It does not add to the happiness of a man to be told that his wife is engaged in business in which he can play no useful part at all. I visited him once or twice at Downing Street during such weekends and felt the isolation.
When required to play a part on missions abroad, he earned his keep. At one state banquet where he sat next to the president's wife and found that neither of them spoke a word of the other's language, they conversed happily by drawing little pictures on the table cloth.
Three of us sought to leaven life at Number 10 for Denis with regular overseas golfing trips. He suffered from a painful back, made worse by continuing to referee rugby matches too late in life. But it never stopped his golf for long. In the early years, there were 18 holes in the morning and, after a pint of beer and a light lunch, another 18 holes in the afternoon. Later, we settled for nine after lunch.
More than once we spent our week at La Manga, where Seve Ballesteros was the visiting professional. He took a liking to Denis and once challenged him to a round in which Ballesteros would drive off one leg. At the last moment, reckoning there would be cameras photographing this exhibition and never one for the limelight, Denis modestly declared himself to be an unworthy opponent and handed the baton over to the rest of us, but consented to walk round.
I look back gratefully on those golfing holidays, which were always fun and sometimes produced unexpected laughs. We reached our hotel one evening later than expected because of a delayed flight, to find a balloon dance in progress. Couples tied balloons round their middle and the object of the dance was to burst other people's balloons by backing into them. We all took part. Denis's policy always was to do what redounded to the credit of his wife. On balance, going into a balloon dance looked more matey than staying out and going to the bar for a gin. So, into the balloon dance.
He could be seen as he really was, cheerful, approachable and considerate of others, at the receptions the Thatchers often gave at Number 10. On such occasions Denis would wheel round the room, gathering under his wing anyone who looked solitary. "You must meet the archbishop," he would say to some unescorted woman guest. "Chancellor, have you met Mr Briggs from Exeter?" He was an excellent host.
All meals with Denis were entertaining, not least because he was so particular about the way his food was cooked. "Waiter," he would say affably, handing him a plate of steak only faintly pink, "will you very kindly take this back to the kitchen and ask them to cook it, because it is practically raw."
Which explains why, when she was Secretary for Education, Margaret was seen one evening by the Permanent Secretary Sir William Pileleaving the office early. She was going out, she explained, to buy bacon for Denis's breakfast. There were, the Permanent Secretary assured her, plenty of people in the department who would be glad to do that for her. No, the bacon had to be just as he liked it, and only she knew what he liked.
That helps us to understand why this was a successful marriage, proof against the fierce light that shines perpetually on the occupants of 10 Downing Street, protective against the disappointments of life at the top, assured of breakfasts at which Denis could eat his bacon without complaint. This was a partnership to remind the world what matchless gifts marriage can bring.