I LAST interviewed Mrs Thatcher shortly after she had taken over as Opposition leader.
We spent an hour cosily chatting at her home in Flood Street, Chelsea, uninterrupted except by Mark and Carol drifting in and out.
I was totally charmed. She was friendly, direct, touchingly insecure, and quite unlike her rather stiff, television image.
She was also extremely pretty—not unlike Selina Scott's rather serious, blue-stocking sister.
The most important thing in politics, she said then, was the ability to pick oneself up, however hurt you felt inside. She certainly needed this ability when I saw her last week, exactly ten years later.
‘I'd better give you the bad news first.’ she said. With the pound crashing about her ears. I thought she was going to say she was too busy to see me.
But she merely dropped another bombshell: ‘The abdominal, or abominable, or whatever they call themselves, council in Oxford have turned me down.’
She was in a state of shock. For a second her eyes filled with tears. But predictably Maggie-nificent in a crisis, she pulled herself together, adding with a toss of her head that if Oxford were unwilling to confer the honour, she had no wish to receive it.
Yet despite having a frightful cold, she looked great—not a day older than when I last saw her. The turned-down, airforce-blue eyes are as bright as ever. The blonde hair more ashy and less corn-coloured. She is also more regal and imposing.
Her Downing Street study is more like a sitting room, decorated in gold and pistachio green with flatteringly soft lighting. Marvellous pictures are only marred by a perfectly frightful seascape by Winston Churchill, which Mrs Thatcher glowingly describes as ‘Turneresque’.
She clearly didn't want to talk about Oxford, so I asked her how she felt she had changed since coming to power.
SHE CLASPED her beautiful white hands, and lent forward. ‘The biggest change came with the Falklands. Somehow I never expected to be in charge of a Government which had to fight a war, to deal with the military so that no one in the field was in difficulties, seeing that the military and political sides understood one another.
‘Then the Brighton bomb.’ For a second, the deep contralto faltered. ‘We lost very dear friends. But one found one could cope with that, too. In a crisis the way ahead is so much clearer.
‘Then I had no idea at the start how to cope with international conferences. I went off wondering what would happen, whether there was some crucible of wisdom one could draw on. But there was no philosopher's stone. It's merely a question of being properly briefed, and doing one's homework.’
Didn't it help when she met leaders from abroad that she was such an attractive woman. ‘I've no idea,’ she replied crisply. ‘I don't think they [end p1] notice you're a woman, it's a question of personality and exchange of views.’
She did find it difficult, however, to get her point of view across through an interpreter. She was used to having one sequence of thought.
‘You suddenly realise when you're well into a subject that they can't understand what you're saying, because you're speaking in a different language.’
One suspects the same thing happens in her own country. She tends to answer questions, by swinging into set speeches on different subjects. By the time you've halted her, or tried to get down what she's saying, you've forgotten your original question.
Last time I saw her, she complained about the calibre of the Tory top brass. How did she feel about her Cabinet today?
Mrs Thatcher proceeded instead warmly to praise her Downing Street squad, speaking of ‘marvellously loyal support. Number Ten is more like a family than an office’.
I tried another tack … why did she personally get such a good press, and her Ministers such a lousy one?
‘I divide people into Doers and Communicators. We in the cabinet are Doers. Perhaps we should spend more time communicating. I like people who talk straight, no jargon, no fudging.’
EARLIER that day, I'd seen her during Question Time being shouted down by the Opposition who were tabling a motion of no confidence on her financial policy. Watching Mrs T and Mr Kinnock bristling across the dispatch box, I was reminded of Dignity and Impudence: Mrs Thatcher, as the stately great Dane, with Mr Kinnock the little terrier snapping round her ankles.
Was she prepared to give a headmistress's report on Mr Kinnock 's leadership of the Opposition? She was not—beyond murmuring that he was rather discourteous, which must be the understatement of the decade.
On the other hand, she added she had also faced Wilson, Callaghan and Foot.
As her particular crosses were Mr Scargill and Mr Kinnock, I asked, did she think there was anything particularly significant about balding, red-headed men?
‘Has Mr Scargill got red hair?’ said Mrs Thatcher. ‘You can't judge personality, you know, by the colour of people's hair.’
What about beards—did she really hate them? ‘My dear,’ she threw her hands up. ‘I've no idea where that came from.’ Then smiling quickly at the bearded Mail on Sunday photographer cringing behind an armchair, she added: ‘I mean, beards are like hairstyles, they suit some people and not others.’
I took a deep breath for the next question: ‘People are saying that after six years, your financial policy is in tatters.’ It was as though I switched on the cold blast of my hairdryer.
‘Tatters!’ said Mrs Thatcher in the outraged tones of Lady Bracknell. ‘Tatters!’
Neck and face reddening, she launched into an impassioned party political broadcast. ‘With the miners’ strike into its eleventh month, inflation is at its lowest for 15 years, we are producing more than ever before, record production, record sales, record investment, the biggest de-nationalisation programme ever … 1.7 million more owner occupiers … reduced taxation. Some tatters!’
Mrs Thatcher is like a wonderfully-comely steamroller. One can see why most of her Cabinet have the puffy look of constantly being flattened like pancakes then blown up with a bicycle pump next morning.
‘Parkinson,’ I said, desperate to raise the temperature. ‘I mean, Norman Parkinson said of all the beautiful women he'd photographed, you had the most sex appeal.’
Mrs Thatcher brightened: ‘How astonishing Norman Parkinson made it so easy. He's a professional of course. I'm a professional person, so are you. I like dealing with professionals,’ she smiled suddenly.
ONE HAS the feeling that, although she is genuinely kind and sympathetic, she's not remotely interested in what makes herself or anyone else tick. She never watches herself on television, for example, nor reads hurtful things about herself.
‘My dear, if one is hurt—and these things do hurt—one can't concentrate on work, and nothing must interfere with that.’
Wasn't that rather wrapping herself in cotton wool? ‘I read the Press digest. If a complaint or criticism is justified, of course I take it seriously. I will not be cotton-woolled. And I put up with question time,’ she added.
‘Must be a nightmare,’ I said, ‘Rather like doing Mother Rota at the playgroup.’ Mrs Thatcher laughed. ‘Real children are far more grown up than politicians.’
She has lost one great friend and mentor after another Airey Neave, Lord Carrington, Cecil Parkinson, and nearly Norman Tebbit. She regards the loss of Lord Carrington as a particularly bitter blow.
‘We tried and tried to persuade him to stay. If he had been in the Commons it would have been different, he could have argued his case.
‘He's a wonderful man, with a great sense of people, wisdom, experience, universally respected and liked, and great fun.’
Would Cecil Parkinson come back? ‘I don't know,’ she said wistfully. ‘We miss his abilities He knew business from the inside, so few politicians do. [end p2]
There was no jargon, no fudging. He was a doer and a communicator.’
‘He was certainly a doer,’ I said without thinking, then hastily added: ‘And a great communicator.’
Despite the punishing schedule, there are no black rings under Mrs Thatcher's eyes and hardly any lines on her face. She is alleged to work harder than any other Prime Minister.
‘I've never had more than four or five hours’ sleep. Anyway my life is my work. Some people work to live. I live to work,’ she said.
She is in great shape—much slimmer than ten years ago. Woodrow Wyatt has got her on to vitamin C for breakfast, but she hasn't taken up jogging yet.
‘Could lose a bit though,’ she said, squeezing a non-existent spare tyre. ‘I don't like sugar, even on grapefruit. (Or fudge either, for that matter.)
‘But I do like a thick sauce with fish, and fruit with meringue on top, and chocolate sauce with ice cream. I love baked potatoes, too, but only with lots of butter,’ she went on dreamily.
BUT RIGID, self-control reasserted quickly. ‘You just learn not to eat too much, to take the top off a tart, and scuffle around to find the fruit underneath.’ How did she feel about being nearly sixty? She laughed: ‘Well it seems much younger than I thought twenty years ago.
‘Besides, Denis is going to be seventy soon,’ she added, with a sly satisfaction that he wasn't going to be able to dodge advancing age either.
As Prime Minister, what did she miss most? ‘Picking up my handbag, and dashing down to Sainsbury's,’ she said without hesitation. ‘I miss window shopping too, and being able to walk up Regent Street to my dentist.
‘We tried to go to Sainsbury's about a year ago, but we were mobbed. Such fantastic value, but of course one must make lists first, or it's dreadfully easy to overspend. One mustn't overspend.’
In one sentence she'd summed up the Thatcher years.