After being forced to acknowledge Margaret Thatcher’s authority in dealing with crises such as the Falklands War in the early episodes of Thatcher: A Very British Revolution (BBC Two), Michael Heseltine clearly relished the finale of this excellent series as he had no reason to hold back as – playing the star witness here – he recalled every twist and turn of her downfall.
Hezza scoffed at her “much romanticised” image that concealed what a “calculating politician she was”, and declared that the country would be much more “different” if he had managed to become Prime Minister. The only contrite note he struck came when he confessed that he might have wasted his time storming out of the cabinet in 1986 only to spend four years on the backbenches “waiting for her to go”.
Most of this episode was defined by the Tories who turned on Thatcher and walked out, exploring the bunker mentality of her team as they tried to survive each minister – with Hezza and Nigel Lawson able to give their sides of the story – jumping ship. Geoffrey Howe, her deputy prime minister, struck the most fatal blow: “I never thought he’d do it,” Kenneth Baker recalled.
The manner of her downfall is well-known, but what elevated this documentary was how it portrayed the turmoil of those involved. Thatcher tried to put on a brave face, telling reporters to “calm down dear”, but behind the door of Number 10, it was anything but calm. Peter Lilley, a stalwart Thatcherite, said that telling her to go was the hardest message he had ever had to deliver to anyone “I’ve liked or lived”. He was at least sincere, unlike those ministers who got teary-eyed on hearing Thatcher read out her resignation statement just hours after telling her to go. Chris Patten put it well – “crocodiles keep a handkerchief happy”.
The ending brought home the pathos of her exit, as those who had been close to her considered how she struggled to adapt to no longer being in Downing Street. Bernard Ingham offered the most touching anecdote of the entire series, recalling how he would bring thorny political problems to her every time they met for them to thrash out, even as she was suffering from dementia.
His bittersweet experience was heart-rending to hear. It capped off the uneasy truth of her time out of office: being Prime Minister had come to consume her so wholly that she did not know how to do anything else. As much as we might remember the Thatcher revolution, and her enemies might revel in the manner of her departure, we should not forget about the humanity of the woman at the heart of it all.
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