Encounter with the Iron Lady

MT
16. April 2013

The chime of Big Ben was due to be silenced today (Wednesday) as the cortege carrying Margaret Thatcher’s body passed by the Houses of Parliament, writes Julian Allitt.

It was in a room in the tower below the famous clock that I first met the Iron Lady, soon after her election as Leader of the Conservative Opposition in Parliament.

Political journalists at Westminster met there every Thursday at 4 pm in a meeting traditionally chaired by the Leader of the Opposition. It was “off the record” – we were not even meant to reveal the meeting’s existence.

This being my first meeting, I was asked to stand, to be formally welcomed by Mrs Thatcher. Later, from my seat in the Press Gallery, above the House of Commons Chamber, I watched her for seven years giving her regular “handbagging” to Labour MPs who sought to outsmart her at the twice-weekly Prime Minister’s questions. She became a formidable force to be reckoned with.

But not all got the same tough response. Jack Straw, later Labour Foreign Secretary but then a young backbench MP, told me he had spotted early on that if one asked an intelligent, well-researched question, Mrs Thatcher respected that and would respond in kind.

One year, with an election approaching, political journalists were invited to a party in our honour at 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s official residence. We discovered that her office had made discreet background checks to find out which of us was married, divorced, living together or single – clearly a moral judgement was being made. Only those with a wife (or husband) were invited à deux.

I was on the Press tables just below the rostrum at the 1980 Conservative Party conference, when Mrs Thatcher made her famous declaration that she would not soften Government policies, “U-turn if you want to, the Lady’s not for turning”.

My next encounter with Mrs Thatcher was in 1981, when I was one of five journalists from our company invited to lunch with her and her Press Secretary, Bernard Ingham. I reported mainly for major regional newspapers in the North of England and I was aware of how deeply unpopular her Government had become in the North.

Why not, I asked the Prime Minister, hold some of her Cabinet meetings in the great provincial cities, such as Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle or Birmingham? She said no, she felt the Cabinet needed to stay in London where the support services it needed were in place.

Twenty-seven years later, now under a Labour Government, the Cabinet did meet outside London, in Birmingham. Government Minister Ed Milliband, today’s Opposition Leader, said that the event would enable ministers to learn more about events affecting people’s lives outside the capital.

“I just think it is the right thing to do,” he said. “I think it is important for Government not simply to spend all it’s time in London.”

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