At an el fresco lunch, on a warm summer’s day in Cape Town a few years back, I reminded Margaret Thatcher of when a former junior minister had vindictively described former Conservative leader Michael Howard as having “something of the night about him”. “That’s what makes us interesting as human beings dear” she replied with a twinkle. Her remark made me think, not for the first time, that Britain’s first female prime minister was a more interesting figure than the easy caricatures of the handbag swinging latter-day Britannia.
Over the last 15 year or so, I have been fortunate to have met Thatcher on a dozen or so occasions. I do have not one original thought to add to the millions of words written about her still restive legacy (much of which I do not like), but I’ve had some tantalising insights into her personality. The first time I met her was in London in 1993 where, at a Times Dillon seminar replete with the atmospherics of a Nuremberg rally, she launched her memoir The Downing Street Years. These were the post Downing Street salad days. To loud cheers, a gentleman rose to ask if she would renounce her peerage and return to office. “No sir!” the purple silk clad empress-over-the-sea shouted (read: “My bags are packed. Get the car out Denis”). The call never came. It never does.
South African political historians will know that the Thatchers loved South Africa, which Denis, ever politically incorrect, affectionately referred to as “God’s Own Country”. The late Sir Lauren van der Post introduced the Thatchers to Mangosuthu Buthelezi in the early 1980s and they hit it off. Denis, wickedly funnily, even suggested to Buthelezi that he, after hearing him sing, should join a choir on the occasion when the Zulu prince took a Zulu troupe of dancers to London.
More controversially, Thatcher, to the consternation of the UK Foreign Office, supported Buthelezi’s and the late Helen Suzman’s position on apartheid. In, 1986, the then leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, a Mr Neil Kinnock, a Welshman, had lathered himself up into a fine state of righteous indignation at Questions to the Prime Minister. He looked apoplectic when Thatcher approvingly quoted a letter Buthelezi had written to The Guardian opposing sanctions and violence. “Yes The Guardian carries excellent letters” the Iron Lady incited. Thatcher, never one for under-heating the frying pan, then quoted an article by Suzman that had appeared in The Times that same week. Thatcher, also, apparently, on her first of many visits to South Africa after leaving office in 1991 provocatively declared “I am a Zulu!”
So in 2002, not long after she reluctantly retired from public life after doctor’s orders, I cheekily asked Thatcher if she would record for television a tribute she had written for Buthelezi and improvise with a few spontaneous lines. She unexpectedly agreed and we duly booked her favourite River Room at London’s Savoy Hotel to do the recording. On the appointed day, her midnight blue jaguar pulled up exactly to the minute at the rear entrance of the hotel. I had a bit of a shock when the famous figure climbed out of the car. She was wearing an haute couture pink shikata suit. Lots of foundation and the hair sandblasted into the world-famous bouffant. She bore done on me like a Falklands-bound battle cruiser.
Our “pleasantries”, as I amiably loped alongside her like an awestruck school boy, went along these lines:
(Jon) “You are exactly on time.”
(MT) “I HATE that” (tardiness) with a flick of the hand.
“Hotel corridors are longer than the corridors of power.”
(Jon) “By the way, I’ve just arrived from
“How is Cairo? It is” without pausing “extraordinary that they built those amazing things and yet they fell so behind us!”
I was nonplussed momentarily before realising she was talking about pyramids and Hosnai Mubarak’s doctrinaire socialism. Then I made my faux pas. Transfixed by her foundation, for some reason — yes, I should know that a gentleman should never ask this of a lady — I inexplicably enquired if she was happy with her make-up. “Why”, she swivelled towards me, “have you brought a first-class make up artist with you?” “Err, no, I left him in Durban,” I saucily offered. She, to her credit, kind of laughed.
Then it was time for the nerve-racking recording of her tribute. The uncut VHS version is quite amusing. “I have known Prince Buthelezi for many years … STOP! I’ve stumbled.” And we went back to the beginning. The second time it was word perfect and I said so. “If it is perfect young man, we don’t need to do it again do we!” she exclaimed. It was only after she had left in a whirl of perfume and aides, and leaving behind her handwritten and perfectly annotated notes, that I understood the woman was an absolute professional and perfectionist. She had told us, in the most unexpected feminine way, which angle of her face she wanted to be filmed from: “My good side.” I was not expecting that. When I watched the footage, after a very stiff martini in the American Bar, she, of course, looked like a million dollars and the foundation, you ladies know, was invisible. She always knew exactly what she was doing and to what effect.
As a non-partisan aside, Buthelezi, in this way, is like Thatcher. So was Suzman and so is Nelson Mandela — both of whom generously gave me interviews for the same documentary. It is old-school professionalism rooted in the belief that every public appearance and meeting, no matter how apparently insignificant, should be prepared for meticulously.
The last and most memorable time I met Thatcher was when I had the extraordinary luck to accompany Buthelezi to her eightieth birthday party at London’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel. A global “who’s who” gathering heartily ate mini portions of fish n’ chips and sushi, while drinking champagne and exchanging memories and gossip. I am not a royalist, but I still cannot believe how everyone goes gaga for Britain’s diminutive monarch who was the evening’s star guest. The human QE2 and Buthelezi reminisced for a few moments about a reception she had held aboard the royal yacht Britannia in Cape Town soon after democracy dawned. “Have you seen who’s here?” QE2 asked the human battle cruiser in those inimitable received clipped vowels. “I’ve seen him already,” the deeper voice replied, and their majesties sailed on.
Standing a few feet away from her senior cabinet colleagues Lord Lawson and Lord Howe, we watched the birthday girl give a short and wistful speech. “I would love another go,” she coyly confided with Tony Blair and John Major anxiously looking on, before offering a rare tribute to her cabinet team who were “simply marvellous”. The truth of the matter is that the old girl was never much of a team player and there is an old chestnut about her approach to cabinet government.
One evening Thatcher took her cabinet out for dinner. The waiter, super attentive to protocol, approached her first and enquired as to her order. Thatcher replied, “I’ll have the roast beef, well done, with Yorkshire pudding.” “And the vegetables, prime minister?” “They’ll have the same.”
The morning after the party, Thatcher kindly invited Buthelezi to her home for coffee. She listened closely and with great interest to Buthelezi’s appraisal of South Africa’s progress. Her affection for the “Beloved Country” clearly undimmed. And still, at eighty, the shopkeeper’s daughter and responsible Methodist, she wondered if her Queen had enjoyed herself the night before, and how jolly glad she was that she (Margaret that is) did not have to clear the dishes. On that note, I can confirm that Thatcher never leaves anything on her lunch or dinner plate. Young people, think of your grandparents, World War II, spam (the meat kind) and rations.
This afternoon, at 2pm, Thatcher’s successor and sure-to-be next prime minister, David Cameron, will rise to deliver his conference-speech — his last as leader of the opposition — thirty years after Thatcher came to power. Around May or June next year, he will ascend Downing Street’s famous staircase lined with pictures of previous prime ministers (Gordon Brown’s portrait will not be hung yet). Cameron will then pause for a moment at the second from last picture. And he will know that he has some very large and sensible patent leather shoes to fill.