Mrs Thatcher’s dramatic descent on a Westminster book launch – and her sense of humour that confounded her critics
By Celia Lee
My first encounter with Mrs Thatcher was on Monday 2nd November 1987, when the Prime Minister was a guest of Macmillan Publishing at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster. The event was the launch of the book The Palace of Westminster written by Sir Robert Cooke, who had died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease before publication. For the first time ever, a member of the royal family, Her Royal Highness the Duchess of York, formerly Miss Sarah Ferguson, who had been the picture researcher on the book was allowed to become involved in this type of commercial venture, and she launched the book. Burton Skina Ltd was the publisher and Macmillan Publishing were the distributors for the book.
In accordance with protocol, everyone is required to be in the reception when the member of the royal family arrives. However, in this case “Fergie” (as the Duchess was affectionately known), turned up ahead of “Mrs T” (as Margaret Thatcher was affectionately known). Fergie, looking like a film star with her waist-length, golden hair, was wearing a black velvet, flared cocktail dress and was swirling around the room in her usual flamboyant manner, meeting everyone. There were dozens of journalists and photographers and at one stage one nearly stuck the nozzle of his camera into Fergie’s back. Her security guard grabbed it and just about lifted the little man off his feet.
Mrs T, having been delayed in heated debate with Labour leader Neil Kinnock in the House of Commons, turned up late, in company with William (Willie) Whitelaw, Leader of the House of Lords, plus an entourage of security men.
Fergie was standing in the centre of a row of VIPs facing the door to greet Mrs T. Everyone was looking to see who was going to courtesy to whom! Mrs T didn’t so much courtesy as genuflect, and her knee went right down to the floor. I marvelled at how fit she was for a woman of 62 years of age, and that she was slimmer than Fergie who was only 28. Then, however, unknown to the public, Fergie was a month pregnant with Princess Beatrice.
Mrs T was not in a good mood. Prior to her arrival a ripple had gone round the room from one of the press people that Neil Kinnock had given her a rough day in the Commons. No doubt she had held her own.
Viscount Alexander Macmillan (later the 2nd Earl of Stockton) was hosting the book launch and party. We were all in semi-formal dress, downing glasses of champagne. The 1st Earl of Stockton, Harold Macmillan a former Conservative Prime Minister was supposed to have likened Mrs T’s privatisation policy to “selling off the family silver.” What he had in fact said at a dinner of the Tory Reform Group at the Royal Overseas League on November 8th 1985, was in reference to the subject of the sale of assets commonplace among individuals or states when they encountered financial difficulties: “First of all the Georgian silver goes. And then all that nice furniture that used to be in the salon. Then the Canalettos go.” Profitable parts of the steel industry and the railways had been privatised, along with British Telecom: “they were like two Rembrandts still left.’” What Macmillan had actually meant therefore was open to interpretation and he later denied that it was directed at Mrs T, but the press had their spin on it and the press headlines everywhere had created a sensation. Someone had dared to face down Mrs T!
It was now Mrs T’s chance to get her own back, and it transpired later she had not in fact been on the original guest list but had telephoned Burton Skina and asked if she could come! She was whisked around the guests including buyers from the big book shops, and then she spotted the pile of books. Picking one up she said with her voice-throwing technique so that it resonated over the din: “How much is it?” Back came the reply: £25, Prime Minister. Mrs T: “£25? It’s over-priced, it was supposed to be £19.99.” No! – No-one dared laugh!
Next morning, we all checked the newspapers thinking there would be pictures of at least some of us as the photographers had had a banquet of photo opportunities the night before, and that there would be wonderful comments. What nearly knocked us down was the heading: “FERGIE BOOTED OUT!” The press had found out that the original venue chosen for the book launch had been some other place, and then it had been discovered that it was the set venue for a football team and they refused to give it up, whereupon the location had been, discreetly as the organisers thought, switched to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre.
Contrary to the assertions of her critics, Mrs T had a sense of humour. I recall that at the height of her political power she was interviewed on a television programme before an invited audience and asked about her likes and dislikes. Then the interviewer asked her what was her preference in pop music. Mrs T admitted that she never took much interest in pop music, and then added coyly: “There was a little song I was rather fond of some year ago.” I expected her to say Vera Lynn’s The White Cliffs of Dover. Then she came out with: “It was calledHow Much Is That Doggie In The Window.” The interviewer and the audience exploded into fits of laugher. Life certainly has its twists and turns; the singer Lita Roza had topped the UK singles charts with the ditty on 17th April 1953, when Mrs T would have been 28 years of age. How little could she have known then that on 17th April 60 years later, her funeral cortege would wend its way in brilliant sunshine through the streets of London to St Paul’s Cathedral.
Celia Lee is a military historian and author