Commentary (The Times)

MT at 80: “The ultimate Eighties revival night” (80th birthday party)

Document type: Press
Source: The Times , 14 October 2005
Journalist: Andrew Pierce, The Times
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 872 words
Themes: Autobiography (marriage & children), Conservatism, Conservative (leadership elections)

The ultimate Eighties revival night

By Andrew Pierce

BARONESS THATCHER had the perfect excuse to be a little late last night for her 80th birthday party in the presence of the Queen, Tony Blair and some unlikely names from the showbusiness world.

She was delayed by an unexpected telephone call from President Bush wishing her a happy birthday. The ten-minute call from the White House was the latest in a series of tributes that poured in from around the world. It marked yet another highlight in the life of a woman who still casts a huge shadow over the Conservative Party.

The red carpet was rolled out for Lady Thatcher, who was dressed in a navy blue cocktail coat and silk chiffon dress designed by Camilla Milton.

Lady Thatcher, who looked frail, made no public comment as a crowd of wellwishers lined the streets to catch a glimpse of Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. The 650-strong guest list was a roll call of honour from the 1980s Thatcher heyday. Michael Portillo, who was once seen as her anointed heir, made a surprise appearance. He said: “She was influential in her day but not now.”

But the former Prime Minister also sprinkled the list with some surprise names from both sides of the political divide.

The Queen, in a shimmering silver dress, the Duke of Edinburgh, and the Prime Minister were the principal guests at the drinks party in the gold-embossed ballroom of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Hyde Park, in Knightsbridge. The Queen and Lady Thatcher were said to have walked hand in hand to the party. One onlooker said: “It was a magical moment.”

The sheer size of the guest list was an indication to some of the former Prime Minister’s associates that the party would be one of the last big public events that she would host.

Joan Collins, Dame Shirley Bassey, the actress June Whitfield and the crime writer P. D. James were present. Terry Wogan, Lord Lloyd-Webber, the composer, Sir Jimmy Young, who was one of her favourite interviewers, and the television presenter Jeremy Clarkson mingled with Princess Alexandra and President Cossiga of Italy.

Sir John Major, who for years was barely on speaking terms with Lady Thatcher, whom he accused of undermining his premiership, made a surprise appearance with his wife Norma. Sir John changed his travel plans at the last minute in a further sign that the feud between the two was at an end.

Angela Merkel, Germany’s new Chancellor, sent a handwritten letter paying warm tribute to a fellow woman leader and “her remarkable achievements”. There were also messages from Helmut Kohl, the former German Chancellor, John Howard, the Australian Prime Minister, and Silvio Berlusconi, his Italian counterpart.

The two-hour party reunited Sir Rex Hunt, who was Governor of the Falklands during the Argentine invasion in 1982, with Lord Carrington, 86, who resigned as Foreign Secretary before the recapture of the islands. Lord Carrington made the toast.

Virtually all her Cabinet colleagues from the 1980s, with the pointed exceptions of Kenneth Clarke and Lord Heseltine, who ended her chances in the first leadership contest in 1990, were invited. Lord Wakeham, who was injured in the Brighton bomb and whose first wife was killed in the 1984 attack, was one of the first to arrive.

Lady Thatcher, who has been told by doctors not to make public speeches after suffering a series of minor strokes, was planning for once to obey orders. But none of her staff would swear to that. Lord McAlpine, who was her Treasurer, flew in from his home in Italy. Lord Bell of Belgravia, the advertising guru who masterminded her election victories, caught up with Lord Parkinson, who was party chairman in her second landslide victory, and Lord Tebbit, the third.

John Bolton, the hawkish US ambassador to the UN who is a close ally of President Bush, came in from New York.

David Davis and Liam Fox, two would-be Tory leaders, were present along with Michael Howard, the outgoing one, who said: “We all owe her an enormous debt.”

There were rare appearances from John Profumo who retreated from public life in 1963 after he resigned as War Secretary after lying to the Commons over his relationship with Christine Keeler, and Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, who was jailed for perjury.

Lady Archer said: “To the outside world, Lady Thatcher may appear to be the Iron Lady, but her friends saw a warm, kind and thoughtful person who does not desert you when you are not in vogue.”

The hatchet was also buried with Lord Howe of Aberavon, whose resignation speech triggered her downfall. He said: “Her real triumph was to have transformed not just one party but two, so that when Labour did eventually return, the great bulk of Thatcherism was accepted as irreversible.”

Other foes from the Thatcher era were reunited. Lord Lawson of Blaby, who resigned as chancellor in 1988, came face to face with Sir Alan Walters, the economics adviser whose presence in Downing Street forced his departure.

Lord Powell, who was foreign policy adviser to Lady Thatcher, and his brother Jonathan, who is chief of staff to Tony Blair, chatted to Frank Field, her favourite Labour MP.