The Iron Lady - a perfectionist to the end
WMN columnist Chris Moncrieff covered Parliament and politics for the Press Association for 14 years as its Political Editor. This is his personal tribute to Margaret Thatcher.
I once saw Margaret Thatcher take on the cream of the Chinese Army in Beijing's famous Tiananmen Square. Just guess who won this encounter.
The then Prime Minister merely had to wag a finger at China's top military brass and they visibly quailed. As she dished out her orders – translated by a highly embarrassed interpreter – she seemed even to take the sheen off their gold braid.
It was an example which epitomised Margaret Thatcher both as the Iron Lady and as a woman who hated to see small children exploited.
On a bitterly cold day, the Chinese had put on a magnificent parade to welcome Mrs Thatcher. It included hundreds of shivering children in the flimsiest of clothes. She took one look, called for the commander of the parade and ordered him: Take these children off the street or give them warm coats to wear.
The officer quickly realised that arguing was not an option. And since they did not have several hundred coats to hand, the children were taken out of the parade and transferred to a building.
Mrs Thatcher personally checked that the building was warm inside before she would let this, by now browbeaten, officer off the hook.
Her affinity with children was demonstrated also at a Press Gallery children's party in the House of Commons one Christmas. Mrs Thatcher was the guest of honour and spent much of the time egging the youngsters on to eat their sausages and baked beans, before they tackled the jelly.
The following year, one political reporter asked his small daughter if she would like to go to the party at the Commons again. She replied: "Only if that nice dinner lady is going to be there this time..."
I was lucky enough to be in 10 Downing Street when her grandson Michael arrived in 1989. "The baby's here!" the cry rang out. Mrs Thatcher almost tumbled down the stairs in her eagerness to see the infant for the first time.
I never, before or since, saw her looking happier. This was when she uttered one of her most famous quotes of all: "We are a grandmother."
She was good with children, maybe. But when it came to trains, she had a lot to learn. Intrepid travellers that we were, we sat in a train in Kuala Lumpur which, unbelievably, the authorities there allowed her to drive.
It was as though the engine was suffering from a severe bout of hiccups. We lurched forward, stalled, lurched again, then crawled then went too fast. I've had tamer moments on white knuckle rides on Blackpool's Golden Mile.
When she (somehow) reached the destination, I facetiously asked whether this performance heralded the onset of a stop-go policy. It was a remark which went unappreciated and which was haughtily ignored.
But Mrs Thatcher refused to drive the train back again, with these final words: "Someone else can reverse. I never do U-turns."
Once on that same trip, she subjected me to a humiliating put-down. We were in Jakarta and a press conference was being held at which the Indonesian press officer was in charge, calling all the local journalists to ask what we regarded as highly boring questions.
Ultimately, thanks to some prodding by Sir Bernard Ingham (Thatcher's press secretary) I got called. When I put my question, which was about trade unions back in Britain, she said: "I didn't come all this way to answer tomfool questions like that..."
Since she did not care to pull her punches, you occasionally got some pretty straight and disarming answers from her. When she was asked why she had backed John Major for the leadership in 1990, she replied: "Because he was the best of a bad bunch."
Sometimes, her overwhelming presence could be too much for even the sturdiest individuals. Once in Germany, Chancellor Helmut Kohl decided he had had enough of being bossed around, so he made some feeble excuse that he had to return to his office, and he disappeared.
Some 20 minutes later, Mrs Thatcher spotted him in a tea-shop scoffing cream cakes. It was not Kohl's finest moment.
Travelling the world with her was an exhausting experience. She was tireless, and expected everyone else to be tireless too. Jet-lag ("whatever's that?") simply did not exist in her book. She zipped around the globe like a hurricane in skirts, followed by a straggling, sweat-soaked grumbling band of reporters (me included), most of them half her age and most with less than half her stamina.
With Mrs Thatcher you rose with the lark and did not bed down, exhausted beyond belief, until well into the night. "Come along, children, what's keeping you?" she would shout at us as we cursed and trudged wearily in her wake.
Not for her the tourist spots. It was a point of honour for her not to have any fun on these trips. For instance, she seemed incapable of passing a ball-bearing factory without going in to study the wonders inside. Life on the road with Thatcher was an endless round of sewers, sludge-pumps, dams and, of course innumerable ball-bearings. We once spent an entire day opening a sewage farm in Cairo.
And in the Falklands she ludicrously got involved in a stare-me-out session with a penguin. No prizes for guessing the winner. The penguin soon realised that his opponent was made of stern stuff. He turned round, and waddled back to his mates, a sorry, defeated figure.
But Thatcher was a professional from tip to toe. Once, on the Saturday following the 1987 general election, I was waiting in Downing Street to pick up some documents. Denis came down first, clutching a copy of the Financial Times under his arm. "Thank God that's over," he observed to anyone who cared to listen.
"I hate elections. I hate them more than you can imagine..."
The Thatchers were off to spend the weekend, or what was left of it, at Chequers. Soon, the Prime Minister emerged. She was carrying a copy of Harpers and Queens, the upmarket women's magazine.
Someone whispered in her ear that there were still TV camera crews outside Number 10. And so, because she did not wish to give the impression that she was reading anything as frivolous as a fashion magazine, she snatched the Financial Times from her surprised husband and wrapped it round the Harpers and Queens.
Then she turned to me and said: "You didn't see that, did you? You didn't see anything, did you?"
And then she marched out with her husband – a perfectionist to the end.