Cheers: Mrs Thatcher sips champagne at a function in 1982. She never over-indulged while in office
By Robin Harris
Anyone who can yield great power easily and painlessly is probably ill suited to exercise it. So it was with Margaret Thatcher. Leaving Downing Street in 1990, ousted by her own colleagues, was more than a wrench for her. It was a personal catastrophe.
She had driven herself so hard and excluded so much else from her life that by then all she was made for was to lead. Suddenly she found herself on the political scrap-heap — and irreversibly so.
Some around her thought of a possible return to power. But she never did, and, contrary to whispered allegations, she always discouraged such imaginings. She knew she was out for good.
The transition to private life was stressful for her, and immediately after her departure from No. 10, her mood was black. She was prone to tears, she was difficult and ill-tempered, sometimes she seemed unhinged. She was almost certainly clinically depressed. Perhaps she should have taken some medication, but she did not.
It was a condition not helped by her belief that her successor, John Major, was betraying everything she stood for. She disliked what she perceived as his lack of principle, his pursuit of consensus, his wooing of interest groups and his chippiness. She was tortured by his constant attempts to distance himself from her.
Suddenly deprived of staff, she had to make her own phone calls, and it emerged that she had no idea how to use a push-button telephone. She had to get advice from her police minders to do so.
After leaving Downing Street Lady Thatcher underwent major dental work including surgery, and undertook to lose the weight she perceived she had gained
More difficulties arose with finding somewhere suitable to live. The new house she had bought in Dulwich, South-East London, was too far out of town, and so the Thatchers borrowed a flat in Eaton Square, Belgravia.
It was suitably grand and central but dark, and her husband Denis in particular disliked its gloom. Mrs Thatcher, sitting beneath a painting of Queen Isabella of Spain, hosted sometimes lachrymose and slightly mad lunches there, while her friends and advisers around the table lamented bitterly the turn of events.
It is to this time in her life that can be traced another problem — her drinking. Contrary to legend, Mrs Thatcher never drank heavily in office.
She enjoyed relaxing with a whisky and soda (no ice), her favourite drink because it was less fattening than gin and tonic. But she was never tempted to over-indulge because she always had a low threshold for alcohol, and even the mildest inebriation would have dulled her mind during the long hours she worked on her papers.
What saved Margaret Thatcher’s sanity after her ejection from Downing Street was hard work
But, out of office, the demands on her were far less — and, like many unhappy people, she hoped a drink would make life bearable.
She was also now reliant on Denis (or ‘DT’, as she called him) to pour the drinks, and he filled her glass as he did his, with quadruple shots. Naturally, people began to notice that Margaret was often plainly intoxicated.
Nor did she take drink well. She quickly became loud, argumentative and unpleasant to those who crossed her, or who she merely thought had crossed her.
Other factors meant that some supposed she was a secret drinker, even perhaps a full-blown alcoholic, neither of which was true.
A year or so after leaving Downing Street, she discovered, or at least persuaded herself, that she had put on weight, and she determined to lose it. This meant she cut down heavily on lunch. So she would be up at six, have her hair done, hold meetings or read and dictate all morning, and would then restrict herself to soup and fruit, with or without a large drink poured by Denis.
The lack of food meant that when he poured her next drink — and in DT’s view the sun passed ‘over the yard arm’, as he put it, as early as a quarter past five in the afternoon — it went straight to her head.
Margaret Thatcher's disenchantment with Major was an open wound, she was too free with her opinions about his failings, and he, for his part, felt hurt and betrayed by her public interventions
Worse still, she was also suffering the after-effects of radical dentistry. Her teeth were the one aspect of her appearance she felt let her down, and she had always had trouble with her gums.
A dentist in North London offered her free treatment, and she and Denis — who was not going to pay if he could help it — spent hours in traffic going back and forth for largely unnecessary work.
She then concluded that something more drastic was required and opted for major surgery elsewhere. It was not a success. She began to mangle her words, slur and sometimes hiss.
She did this when stone-cold sober, but many drew the conclusion that she was continually drunk. And because the dental work hurt her, she felt even less inclined to eat and so the drink had even more effect.
Leaving Downing Street in 1990, ousted by her own colleagues, was more than a wrench for her. It was a personal catastrophe
What saved Margaret Thatcher’s sanity after her ejection from Downing Street was hard work. It was also a necessity. She was poorer than many imagined — scandalously so by the international standards of former heads of government.
At No. 10, she had scrupulously paid all her private entertainment and dining expenses. She had also refused to take successive salary increases as Prime Minister, and that reduced her pension, a situation that in later years prompted her to complain ceaselessly and disagreeably about how much she had forgone.
At the age of 65, she needed to earn a good salary during the rest of her active life if she was to retire in comfort. DT could not afford to keep them both, and such a course was never envisaged.
She always had a low threshold for alcohol and did not take drink well
On top of all that, she could expect to subsidise her two children, neither of whom seemed capable of earning a reliable, trouble-free income. So she set herself a prodigious amount of work, writing speeches, articles and several books.
Tory grandee Alistair McAlpine was the central figure in creating an infrastructure for her new life and providing a house in Westminster for an office. For the income she so badly needed, the speech-making circuit beckoned, particularly in the U.S., where conservative audiences — much larger and richer than in Britain — offered her not just cash, but love and veneration.
Over there, she spoke about the shared values and history of Britain and the U.S. and was intrigued by the concept of an ‘Anglosphere’ of English-speaking nations and an enhanced special relationship. In private, her enthusiasm went further and she admitted that she would welcome Britain becoming the 51st State of the Union.
She continued to use her appearance to get her way, and she was still a remarkably good-looking woman in her late 70s. She had fine legs, and knew it, hitching her dress up a little as she folded them. Her concern to look attractive explained her impractical and much discouraged attachment to high heels.
Alistair McAlpine was the central figure in creating an infrastructure for her new life and providing a house in Westminster for an office
Many exaggerated accounts of her ‘increasing frailty’ resulted from her tottering shakily up or down a staircase, but this was the result of vanity, not decrepitude — though she did in her 80s suddenly become less sure-footed and more uncertain on stairs.
For their home, the Thatchers eventually bought a Georgian house in Chester Square in Belgravia. There was a small formal dining room in which to entertain, though she and DT generally ate in the kitchen. There were no live-in staff, so she was compelled to do more cooking, not something at which she excelled.
Denis in general ate little, but was extremely demanding about his breakfast. He required five kinds of toast. He also liked boiled eggs, but since she rose early and he late, she usually over-boiled them.
On one memorable occasion, however, she forgot to boil them at all — and Denis’s reaction as he sliced off the top of his raw egg was unprintable.
Margaret Thatcher with husband Denis, who she became increasingly reliant on in later life to pour the drinks, and he filled her glass as he did his, with quadruple shots
The house had a strong room in the basement for her security in case of terrorist attack, but it was not ideal in other respects. There were too many stairs for Denis, now nearing his 80s, though almost to the last he struggled up them to his sitting room on the third floor.
Planning restrictions prevented the installation of a lift, and also of air conditioning, which was a problem because the house became very hot in the summer months.
But the Thatchers’ stinginess also precluded the purchase of portable air-cooling units. She preferred to swelter, even though she hated the heat, and would endure sleepless nights that interfered with her ability to work.
In addition to providing her with an office, Alistair McAlpine also conceived the idea of a Foundation, to promote her vision and perpetuate her legacy — and, in his private view, to provide a basis from which she might return to office, if events moved in that direction. From the start, the project was dogged by problems.
Dennis liked boiled eggs, but since she rose early and he late, she usually over-boiled them. Once she forgot to boil Denis’s egg and served it raw
The purposes of the Foundation were established without sufficient regard to whether it would be able to gain charitable status, which was essential if it was to attract sizeable tax-beneficial donations.
Above all, it was not understood how much political bias would enter into the Charity Commission’s final decision. In truth, no Foundation bearing Mrs Thatcher’s name was ever going to be granted charitable status, because it was a red rag to too many Leftish bulls. But the rejection was a blow all the same.
Eventually, a halfway house was found by which money for specific purposes that counted as ‘charitable’ was funnelled through the Charities Aid Foundation.
But the donations in Britain were disappointing — foreign contributions were much more significant. One reason why domestic donations dried up lay in the behaviour of Mark Thatcher.
His swaggering and shifty manner, his demands that businessmen ‘pay up’ for gains that business had made during his mother’s premiership, and his wrongly presumed presence on the Foundation’s board, or at least influence behind the scenes, did irremediable damage.
Only in February 1991, when Julian Seymour (a business colleague of PR guru Tim Bell) was recruited to run the Foundation, was the shadow of Mark’s presence lifted and the Foundation became a modest success.
One reason why domestic donations to the Foundation dried up lay in the behaviour of Mark Thatcher and his demands that businessmen 'pay up' for gains that business had made during his mother's premiership
Meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher’s disenchantment with Major was an open wound. He was the man she had favoured to replace her, but she deplored his government’s drift towards Europe and relaxation of control over public expenditure, which she correctly predicted would lead to economic and political trouble.
She was too free with her opinions about his failings, and he, for his part, felt hurt and betrayed by her public interventions, to the point of obsession. But at least she was upfront about this, unlike the poisonous briefing against her that flowed regularly out of Downing Street.
Major, it seems, hated her, though she did not hate him. She never used foul language about him, or cried, ‘I want her isolated! I want her destroyed!’, as Major apparently did.
Her words were ones of exasperation — ‘How stupid!’, ‘How petty!’, ‘What a silly little man!’, or (screwing up her face, and using a stage Scottish accent) ‘Puir wee bairn!’ She did not even really dislike him, though unfairly she disliked his wife (she rarely saw the best in spouses). The worst she ever felt was a mild contempt, and even that was tinged with a sort of affection, which came from the knowledge that she, after all, had chosen him (something she claimed she did not regret).
Indeed, her verbal onslaughts against him had been rather more ferocious when they worked together as colleagues — notably during his time at the Treasury, when he was simply out of his depth.
On reading one passage for a speech supplied by his department, she had exploded: ‘Useless! No Prime Minister was ever so badly served by her ministers!’ What was on offer, she had shouted at Major, ‘wouldn’t knock the skin off a rice pudding’.
The trouble was that she had political principles, and in retirement she stuck by them. Had she confined herself to money-making and self-promotion, her reputation would now undoubtedly be more favourable than it is.
Ex-leaders are expected to employ their celebrity status to replenish — or swell — their bank balances and permitted to offer their wise (or not so wise) thoughts about the world while doing so.
But if they interfere with the running of their former domain, if they challenge the interests of the generation that thinks it has come into its own, then they run into trouble. This convention she now brutally breached, and the response was equally brutal.
Ex-leaders are expected to employ their celebrity status to replenish - or swell - their bank balances, but on Europe, in particular, she could not keep quiet
On Europe, in particular, she could not keep quiet. When in office, she had, for most of the time, preferred to see the Euro-federalist project as silly rather than dangerous. She had, after all, signed up to the Single European Act and, reluctantly, the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.
Now, as moves to even more integration gathered pace, she was guilt-ridden by her own slowness of perception and felt she had to alert the country before Britain was drawn into a United States of Europe. The key battle was over the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. John Major has suggested that Mrs Thatcher was at the heart of the rebellion against it, but this is false.
She certainly hoped to see the treaty defeated, but she did not engage in the systematic lobbying of MPs that Major suggests. She did, however, see a few waverers (telling one: ‘Your spine doesn’t reach your brain!’) and used speeches to make the anti-Maastricht case.
She scrutinised every word of the treaty and its explicitly stated aim to create a new ‘union’, with its own ‘citizenship’ and ultimately a single currency and a common defence policy. It was simply unacceptable to her and, she believed, a substantial section of the Conservative Party.
Major argued back that he had negotiated ‘opt-outs’ on social regulations and on the single currency — the Euro — that guaranteed Britain’s freedom of action.
Her staff privately hoped that she would be persuaded by Major’s arguments, because the consequences of her opposition were bound to be damaging, not least for her. But she would not be moved.
The day after Major announced the results of his negotiations, he and his wife attended the Thatchers’ 40th wedding anniversary party at Claridge’s. Outside afterwards, in a flush of gratitude and when questioned by the Press, Mrs Thatcher inadvertently said Major had done ‘brilliantly’, which was taken as signalling her acceptance of the Maastricht deal.
When she read the following morning’s newspapers at home, she was appalled. Overriding all pleas for reflection, she insisted that a clarification to the Press be issued, as it duly was. Now the row was public, and people began to take sides. Her outspoken persistence in making her case infuriated Major.
He and his colleagues refused her demand for a referendum on the issue, not least, he later admitted, because she was the one asking for it — an indicator of the pettiness that characterised his Cabinet.
The Conservative Party was divided and its reputation damaged.
She believed ever after that the Tories could still have won the 1997 General Election if Major had vetoed Maastricht. Her reasoning was that the country was hostile to Europe, and so were most Conservative MPs.
As it was, one revealing image of that election — apart from Tony Blair’s unstoppable drive to power — was of Major and Thatcher on the campaign trail together.
Normally they were kept well apart — and for good reason — but at Stockton on Teesside they were scheduled to tour the constituency together. He was late arriving from London, and she had to wait for an hour-and-a-half for him at the airport, in a fury at what she saw as his unprofessional behaviour — ‘an insult to the people of the North’, she called it.
When he eventually got there, they drove through the streets, the current and former prime ministers side by side on the campaign bus. ‘Voters to the left — wave!’ she called out to him sternly. ‘Voters to the right — wave!’
He stared ahead, taking absolutely no notice, as the Tories ploughed on to what would be a shattering defeat.
Afterwards, Mrs Thatcher’s former Cabinet colleagues sought to pin the blame on her. They had ditched her as prime minister back in 1990 because she threatened their continued enjoyment of office.
Now they were unforgiving. But it had been their own mistakes and misconduct that led to the worst Conservative defeat in the party’s history.
Extracted from Not For Turning: The Life Of Margaret Thatcher by Robin Harris, to be published by Bantam Press on April 25 at £20. © 2013 Robin Harris. To order a copy for £15 (inc. p&p) call 0844 472 4157