EXTRAORDINARY ORDINARY WOMAN
Just one day in the life of Mrs. Thatcher
Alison Hulls was invited to spend a day with Opposition Leader Mrs Margaret Thatcher. Here is her account of a close look at the Iron Lady of the Western World.
An extraordinary ordinary woman is Alison 's verdict.
My father rang me from Cornwall at 6.30 a.m. The operator followed with an alarm call half an hour later.
You need an early start to spend the day with Mrs Margaret Thatcher, the Opposition leader, MP for Finchley and Friern Barnet and, more than likely, Britain's first woman Prime Minister.
I've known Mrs. T. since I was an 18-year-old and she was MP for the area I covered for this newspaper.
But I was unprepared for the full pressures of a day surveying life at the top at Westminster. I was with Mrs Thatcher for 12 hours—and she was still going strong when I called it a day and collapsed in front of the telly.
But for Mrs Thatcher this was a comparatively easy day. Her constitution is impressive. It was a fascinating close-up of the Iron Lady of the Western world.
As one of her devoted staff said: “The only time she's not working is when she sleeps. She has this incredible gift of concentration and remarkable stamina. She has to for this job.”
Mrs. Margaret Hilda Thatcher, aged 50, has been MP for Finchley and Friern Barnet for the past 17 years.
Ever since she became Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition 14 months ago every minute of her time has been planned and accounted for.
She has a punishing schedule, and clearly seems to enjoy it. In ten years of observing her locally I have never once noticed her the slightest bit frazzled. And she remains just as cool and composed with the new pressures of her office.
I spent Friday dogging her heels and meeting her private office staff.
May 7 was a hot, tiring day. A historic day for the Tory party. They clocked up more than 1,500 gains in local government elections in the country the night before.
Mrs Thatcher's day began at 6.45 a.m. when she turned on the radio. The previous evening she has attended a reception at the Brazilian Embassy for the President's visit, before going to Conservative Central Office to watch the results come in.
She issued a statement to the Press Association, and got home to Flood Street, Chelscu, at 1.45 a.m.
Mrs Thatcher agreed with me that she runs her life by lists. She has to. Friday's engagements list began: 8.15. Depart Flood Street with Alison. This is 26-year-old Alison Ward, her constituency secretary.
On the dot the door opens and Mrs Thatcher greets me with the hope that it's not too early. Does she know I needed a special alarm call?
First port of call is Claridges, Breakfast at 8.30 with three Americans. Mr. Hedley Donovan, editor-in-chief of Time Incorporated, Mr Henry Grunwald, editor of Time Magazine, and Mr Herman Nickel, bureau chief of Time Life.
Not a head has turned in the traffic as Mrs Thatcher studies papers in the back of Alison 's inconspicuous 1100. She wears a long-sleeved navy blue dress trimined with green and a two-strand pearl necklace. As the day grew warmer she regretted those long sleeves.
Wide awake, the Claridges' doorman congratulates her on the party's election successes. One of her Parliamentary Private Secretaries, John Stanley, MP, meets her at the hotel.
The breakfast is an informal background meeting and takes longer than expected. This has a chain effect on the rest of the morning's plans.
Her chauffeur, George, meets her in the leader's official black Rover, and they have 15 minutes to get her cool, uncluttered office at the House.
George was Mr. Heath 's driver for many years, and perhaps sees more of her than the rest of her staff.
Photographer Jim Rowland and I follow on and are met by a secretary in the central lobby. As the House isn't sitting yet, a quick walk through the chamber and voting lobbies lands us in the Opposition leader's reception room.
Her room is fairly large, with a desk, the Shadow Cabinet table, armchair, a television and flowers.
Two secretaries work in the small outer office. A kettle is on the floor. A tiny fridge inside a stationery cupboard. Newspaper headlines are stuck on the door. Above a desk the words: “As soon as the rush is over I'm going to have a nervous breakdown. I worked for it; I owe it to myself; and nobody is going to deprive me of it.”
Propped on the mantelpiece is a favourite photo of Mrs Thatcher huging a handicapped child during a trip to a local school at the time of the Blackpool party conference. Another copy is on the wall of a room in the private office—a corridor suite of rooms a short distance away up some stairs.
The office is headed by Mr Airey Neave, MP, Shadow spokesman for Northern Ireland, and also houses some members of the Shadow Cabinet, Mrs Thatcher's other PPS, Adam Butler, Lord Butler 's son, and the rest of the staff of 15, who include George.
Every day Mrs Thatcher gets about 450 letters, some in foreign languages. Last Thursday and Friday many were about the Asian families staying in a Gatwick hotel.
Some people write twice a day. Anonymous letters go straight in the bin. The average output is 300 letters. Some are written on Mrs Thatcher's behalf, others passed on to someone more appropriate to the problem, but all the others have to be [end p1] read, answered, typed and signed.
Upstairs the atmosphere is rather like a refined newspaper office. Even though it's Friday, when many MPs are off in their constituencies and not much happens at the House, they are hard at it. Telephones are non-stop. Letters are being read, written, statements drafted, trips arranged.
Downstairs, visitors can sit on a sofa in the corridor. Messengers come and go. Some telephone calls have to be made in the corridor.
Inside her office, Mrs Thatcher works at the Shadow Cabinet table rather than her desk and goes through constituency mail with Alison Ward.
Problems include a deportation order and the campaign against yellow lines in Finchley Central and East Finchley. Mrs Thatcher reads at top speed, querying and re-drafting.
Surprisingly, she says her Finchley mail has not increased very much since she became leader. Upstairs, there is only room to file four months of letters—after that they are stored in a warehouse.
I suddenly notice that here too, she is referred to as Mrs T. But not to her face. And I remember when she was Education Minister the mouthful “Yes, Secretary of State, No, Secretary of State.”
At 10.15 a.m. Mrs Thatcher is supposed to have a meeting to discuss her forthcoming Scottish tour, but instead has discussions with advisers about the economic situation following the TUC agreement on pay, and on the local election results.
Statements are drafted, checked and typed. She is supposed to leave for Southgate at 11.40, but it is after 12 when she finally leaves accompanied by a detective and John Moore, MP for Croydon Central and a vice-chairman of the Tory party with responsibility for youth.
He is guest speaker at the annual lunch held by the Women's Advisory Committee of Finchley and Friern Barnet Conservatives.
Jim Rowland leaves ten minutes ahead to get photographs of her arriving, but is five minutes late. George knew the quickest route.
There's no time for the powder room at Firs Hall in Green Lanes—or anywhere else in the day that I can remember—and Mrs Thatcher whisks straight into the reception committee—her hair had a quick pat in the car.
This was probably the most leisurely part of her day, chats with old friends, soup, lamb and syllabub, and a strong speech by John Moore which obviously plcuses.
He speaks about three failures in modern government—bureaucratisation, legislative mania and interference neurosis, and quotes Ralf Dahrendorf; German director of the London School of Economics.
Mrs Thatcher, in strong optimistic mood, outlines a Conservative philosophy of conserve, create and concern.
She draws the raffle tickets and is presented with a huge basket of flowers, handmade by the chairman's wife, Mrs Renee Sapsted. Mrs Thatcher thanks her and says they will last long enough to take into Number 10.
Then back into the Rover and off to her weekly visit to the hairdresser.
There, instead of magazines, she reads more official papers, catches up on more background work. The pressure to be informed and up to date is enormous.
After that she was supposed to go home for a briefing on the television programme Weekend, World she would take part in on Sunday. Instead she is back at her office at 5.15 and stays until nearly 7 p.m. The meeting is switched to her office.
Next door, the office of the Leader of the House, Mr Michael Foot, is empty. Most people seem to have gone home for the weekend. Eventually Mrs Thatcher emerges, makes final checks on arrangements for the weekend, and goes home for about 25 minutes to change.
Her old red despatch box from the Department of Education and Science goes with her.
She reappears in a long green and white spotted dress and apologises for the negligible untidiness. There is no housekeeper. Daughter Carol is at home, her twin, Mark, is away.
She quickly reads a couple of hand-delivered letters, poses for photographs, kindly remarks that I have lost weight, and examines a bay tree in the front garden on the way out with her husband, Denis, “We've lost the fight for that.”
Then back to the Houses of Parliament for the ladies' night of the Spiders Club—a businessman's dining club from Orpington.
Mrs Thatcher is scheduled to make a 20-minute speech and be home by 11 p.m. At 11.25 she is the subject of a light-hearted 15-minute radio programme.
“When we get home tonight we'll just sit down and talk,” she tells me. “Then I'll sort out some clothes for tomorrow.”
Does she see enough of her family? “No, I think we would all like to see each other more.”
What has changed most since ‘she won the leadership? “I feel I have absolutely no spare time,” Did she ever resent that? Her characteristic straight-forward reply: “No, I chose to do the job.”
I asked her, in view of the day, whether she existed on nervous tension. The smile was sweet, the answer simple. “I'm not nervous, am I, George?” she replied with a glance at her chauffeur.
Mrs Thatcher said it had been a curious day. It was not usual for her to have three meals out. To relax she goes to the country, but that's not often.
In a week which began with her receiving a cartoonists' award, Saturday saw her at the rugby league cup final at Wembley, where she presented the winning St. Helens team with the cup.
She said: “It's a working weekend, I've got quite a lot to catch up on.” Saturday meant more preparation for the television programme. In the evening she probably saw some television. “If I'm at home, I sometimes watch the whodunnit.”
The television set in her office is switched on for the news, but rarely for anything else, She missed the Panorama interview with Solzhenitsyn, but the BBC let her borrow the film—something that happens quite often.
Sunday involved a morning at the studios, a visitor in the afternoon and an economics dinner in the evening. This week there were three big speeches and then Scotland and the party conference there.
Since February 1975 she has had very little time off. Just one ten-day holiday sailing off the coast of Brittany, but even then photographers and reporters were on her trail.
At Easter she managed to snatch a couple of days at her flat at Scotney, Kent, and candidly admits she used this time to catch up on her sleep.
She's planning a fortnight's holiday in August, but is very conscious that as Opposition leader she must be involved, aware and available all the time.
Invitations pour in for her to speak here, visit there, present this and attend that. Next year's diary is already filling up nicely. The woman in charge of organising her tours and all the diplomatic protocol this involves says: “Invitations pour in and she, can only accept a tiny handful. We receive anything up to 20 a day.”
This year she has visited Nato, and been to Egypt, Syria and Israel. Last year she visited Luxembourg, France, Germany, Rumania, the U.S. and Canada. Later this month she will be in Germany for a day. This autumn she will go to Yugoslavia, Australia and New Zealand.
Mrs Thatcher is not the showman type of politician and this shows in her still slight apprehension to publicity and cameras. She's had her share of the sort that would make a lot of people want to crawl into a hole—remember the milk snatcher and the fuss about her larder?
But she doesn't regard it as a necessary evil either, and is a strong believer in the accountability of public figures. She stressed that when she referred to local councillors during lunch.
Local reporters have always been thankful for her kindness and total lack of pomposity, especially after television crews began to dominate local meetings.
She has changed little since the days when she would arrive at a school or fete in Finchley driving her old light blue Ford Anglia. At her tenth anniversary ball she found time to help me over an embarrassing moment with my dress by a prompt safety pin. Many times she turned over her notes to help with a difficult speech.
But it is this quality in her that is the most difficult to pass on without being sycophantic. It sounds slightly trite to say she always has time for a personal chat. That she has an astonishing memory for faces and names. That she is full of kindness and concern for her staff.
“They are marvellous. We work together. Time is nothing to them, they stay until the work is finished. I'm just as dedicated to them as they are to the job. It's not like an ordinary office, we don't work normal hours, and they often work on their own initiative.”
For a middle-aged woman so calm, efficient and unaffected, she arouses extraordinary passion. Some adore her, and none more so than Conservatives in Finchley, where they call her “our Margaret.”
Others can't stand her, and say so often. From impressions given on television and in the Press, they say she's a snob, talks down to people, and is on the side of class and privilege. Her voice comes in for a lot of comment. And any woman in public life gets double the criticism passed on a man.
I've heard this answered: “Yes, but they don't know her.” Many people are won over when they meet her.
I can only say she's an extraordinary ordinary woman.
Five years ago she laughed when I asked if she could be Britain's first woman Prime Minister. She said she didn't think a woman would reach that office in her life-time.
Now she seems confident.