The Times Diary
Professionalism in a nice blue hat
Some right-wing Conservatives tip Margaret Thatcher as the next leader of the Conservative Party, should they lose the forthcoming election. (Although the competition is weak, she would not be a universally popular choice. It is said that when it was put to Enoch Powell, who no longer has a voice in these things, he blurted: “They wouldn't put up with those hats and that accent.” )
Yesterday Mrs Thatcher—accent, hats and all—was on display at the Chelsea Antiques Fair, where she was performing the opening ceremony. With the election season about to open, I went to study her form.
The hat was a swashbuckling peacock blue model, with Tudor overtones, adorned with some loops at the back which could have been a mistake. It toned perfectly with her peacock blue costume, the single colour, relieved only by an orchid in the buttonhole.
Her accent is unremarkable enough, and I think it is probably the pitch of her voice which irritates Powell. It is a decibel or so too high for comfort. She speaks with undue deliberation and too little expression, having a rather mesmeric effect.
Regarding the party leadership, Mrs Thatcher pointed out that one of her predecessors in opening the fair had been Edward Heath, but she said we should not read too much into this. The only political point in her speech was an expression of the hope that future tax measures would not deter people from building collections of antiques, or prevent London from remaining the centre of the world antique market.
I asked her about the Great Manifesto Leak, and she shrugged it off. She thought manifestos were of little importance in gaining votes. She was more interested in talking about the dustmen's strike in Kensington and Chelsea, where she lives and where the fair is being held. While the front entrance of Chelsea Town Hall leads to the fair, residents can pick up their plastic bags for garbage at the back. Then they have to cart it to the dumps themselves.
As Conservative spokesman for the environment, Mrs Thatcher was naturally concerned about this. Moreover, there is a milk delivery strike in the borough, too. Times are indeed hard in Chelsea.
Mrs Thatcher revealed her mettle in one confrontation as she was touring the fair. She was examining some exquisite glass and chatting amiably to the stall holder when a man, carrying a red crash helmet in his grimy hands, went up to her.
“Are you Lady Thatcher?” he asked. When told he almost had it right, he spoke passionately for several minutes about the need to recruit older school teachers. This used to be her subject, and she listened with great patience, agreeing noncommittally. She thanked him for talking to her, and, with scarcely a pause, picked up the thread of the talk about glass when he had gone away. A sign that she is a polished professional and that the election season is truly with us.