AFTER THREE WEEKS OF CAMPAIGNING AND CELEBRATION, NOW SHE HAS TIME TO TALK. AND, OF COURSE, SHE TALKS TO THE MAIL
THE VITAL ART OF BEING A LEADER …
The sign by the door of the Leader of the Opposition's office at Westminster still said The Rt Hon Edward Heath.’
In that room, over the years, I have talked with Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson, Sir Alec Douglas-Home and, of course, Heath himself.
Now there was a huge basket of red roses and the Leader of the Conservative Party, Mrs Margaret Thatcher.
And it did not seem strange at all.
In spite of her femininity you rapidly forget any ideas of treating her as some form of novelty—a ‘woman party leader.’
I asked her if she thought the new job would interfere with her family life. She didn't think it would. Suddenly the question seemed ridiculous. I wouldn't have put it to Indira Gandhi—or Harold Wilson.
She has met Mrs Gandhi and admires her skills, but does not know Golda Meir or any of the world's other leading political women.
As for whether Britain was ready for a woman Prime Minister—I remembered her saying to someone just a few days earlier: ‘They'll be ready when they get one.’
She sat on the couch by the window and looked around at the dull woodwork and the empty shelves. ‘It's a nice room,’ she said. ‘But we'll have to do something about it.’
Ruthless? Not me!
A few days earlier I had written that she was ruthless. Mrs Thatcher did not agree.
‘No, I'm not ruthless,’ she said. ‘I know that some things have to be done and I know that when they are done one will be accused of all kinds of things.’
She clearly felt that way about the changes in her front bench team which she has been deciding this weekend. ‘I find it very difficult,’ she said. ‘I know how I would feel if I were dropped. But you have to give new chaps a chance to learn and to get vital experience.’
And she felt the same about the way she had prised out Edward Heath.
‘After ten years in which our vote had slumped and we had become a losing party there HAD to be a change.
At the very beginning I had considerable doubts about my chances but the speed with which the thing gathered force was quite astonishing.
‘The Press was one of my problems. The Press didn't take me seriously. The Daily Mail did but the others didn't.’
She is worried that the public does not know what she is really like. ‘People think I am cold and I know I am not,’ said Mrs Thatcher.
‘Perhaps it is because I do not believe in losing my temper in public.’ She paused a moment. ‘Or in private either,’ she said. ‘Because I stay cool on TV they seem to confuse calmness with coldness.’
So what kind of thing made her angry? ‘Denis Healey got me angry the other night,’ she said, fuming visibly at the recollection of her clash with the Chancellor in a Finance Bill debate.
‘I was angry at the thought that he was treating his own office with contempt. He was cheap.’
Sometimes, replying to a debate, she got angry, ‘in a controlled way.’ But she has no intention of letting Harold Wilson provoke her unless she is ready to be provoked.
What else gets her upset or emotional? ‘Half-truths,’ she said.
Half-truths like the attacks on her close colleague Sir Keith Joseph for his controversial speech on birth control.
‘Anyone who knows Keith would realise he couldn't ever be accused of the awful things that were suggested.’ she said.
Half-truths like the supposed political martyrdom of the Shrewsbury strike pickets. ‘That's a classic example of half-truth,’ she said. ‘And the myth of conspiracy charges being somehow dredged up against them. The conspiracy charge was designed for that kind of situation.
‘It was a criminal conspiracy.’
Some Have Flair
We talked about leadership. ‘There are three sorts,’ she suggested.
‘There are those who have a gift, a flair—like Winston or Franklin Roosevelt.
‘There is Harold Wilson 's kind of leadership. He has a different kind of flair but also a political capacity for knowing the feelings and the strands of thought in his party. It's manipulative leadership. Wilson has no vision of the future.’
The third kind? ‘Well, Attlee had a completely different quality—an ability to gain respect.’
And Harold Macmillan? Her enthusiasm was plain.
‘He could create unity. What he did after Suez was fantastic. But he also had tremendous vision.’
Where, I wondered, did she fit into these groups. She thought we had all better wait and see.
‘But I am a builder, not a destroyer,’ she said. There were always going to be differences in society. ‘There will always be people who have power and people who do not.
‘What we have to do is keep the way open so that those with ability have the chance to get through.’
Harold Macmillan, whom she so admires, used to relax by reading Anthony Trollope 's novels. He reckoned that the Pallisers were pretty close to the essence of politics.
Harold Wilson 's favourite book is Carl Sandburg's Life of Lincoln.
Margaret Thatcher has just been reading a symposium on six Prime Ministers and is into Peter Quennell 's Victorian portraits. ‘I don't particularly like the political Trollope,’ she said. ‘Biographies—yes.’
‘When I want to relax and my mind is running around on something. I like Hammond Innes or Alistair Maclean.’
And she is a devoted advocate of Solzhenitsyn. The First Circle she considers especially great, although we both agreed that Gulag Archipelago was somewhat harder going.
She likes to keep paperback copies of the books which impress her. ‘When I find a passage which particularly expresses a strand of philosophy which I like. I mark it in the margin and then write the page number—you know, Page 96—in the back cover.
Then, when she has an important speech to make she often flips through the marked books to find the quotation which helps her train of thought.
Talk of other Prime Ministers led us to her own prospects of the highest political office. Nearly four years as a Cabinet Minister makes her familiar with 10 Downing Street. But the constant pressures and demands of carrying final responsibility are a burden few would want.
Power, however, fascinates her. At every stage of her climb up the political ladder she has looked swiftly to the next rung.
She talks knowledgeably of Parliamentary Secretaries, Civil Service mandarins, Secretaries of State, the all pervading presence of the Treasury, of Cabinet committees and the Cabinet itself.
‘Persuasion and a good case are always the two best allies.’ she said.
But how would it be when she was the one being persuaded—when she was the occupant of 10, Downing Street?
‘I have no fear of that,’ said Margaret Thatcher. And I do not believe she has.