In the long history of this Parliament, Margaret Thatcher was our first – and so far only – woman Prime Minister.
She won three elections in a row, serving this country for a longer continuous period than any Prime Minister for more than one hundred and fifty years.
She defined – and she overcame – the great challenges of her age…
…and it is right that Parliament has been recalled to mark our respect.
Mr Speaker, it is also right that next Wednesday, Lady Thatcher’s coffin will be draped with the flag she loved…
…it will be placed on a gun carriage and taken to St Paul’s Cathedral…
…and members of all three services will line the route.
This will be a fitting salute to a great Prime Minister.
Today, we in the House of Commons are here to pay our own tributes…
…to an extraordinary leader – and an extraordinary woman.
What she achieved – even before her three terms in office – was remarkable.
Those of us who grew up when Margaret Thatcher was already in Downing Street can sometimes fail to appreciate the thickness of the glass ceiling she broke through…
…from a grocer’s shop in Grantham to the highest office in the land.
At a time when it was difficult for a woman to become a Member of Parliament, almost inconceivable that one could lead the Conservative Party and, by her own reckoning, virtually impossible that a woman could become Prime Minister – she did all three.
It is also right to remember that she spent her whole premiership – and indeed much of her life – under direct, personal threat from the IRA.
She lost two of her closest Parliamentary colleagues – Airey Neave and Ian Gow – to terrorism.
And, of course, she herself was only inches away from death in a terrorist attack in 1984…
…and yet it was the measure of her leadership that she shook off the dust of that attack, and in an outstanding conference speech reminded us all why democracy must never give in to terror.
Margaret Thatcher was a woman of great contrasts.
She could be incredibly formidable in argument – yet wonderfully kind in private.
In Number 10 today there are still people who worked with her as Prime Minister – and they talk of her fondly.
One assistant tells of when she got drenched in a downpour on a trip to Cornwall and Margaret Thatcher personally made sure she was looked after and found her a set of dry clothes.
Of course, she always preferred dries to wets.
On another occasion one assistant had put in a hand-written note to Mrs Thatcher saying “please can you re-sign this minute”.
Unfortunately she had left off the hyphen, leaving a note that actually read “please can you resign this minute”…
…to which the Prime Minister politely replied: “thank you dear, but I’d rather not.”
Margaret Thatcher was faultlessly kind to her staff – and utterly devoted to her family.
For more than fifty years Denis was always at her side, an invaluable confidant and friend.
Of her he said this: “I have been married to one of the greatest women the world has ever produced. All I could produce - small as it may be - was love and loyalty.”
We know just how important the support of her family and friends was…
…and I know that today everyone in this House will wish to send our most heartfelt condolences to her children, Carol and Mark, to her grandchildren and to her many, many loyal friends.
She was always incredibly kind to me – and it was a huge honour to welcome her to Downing Street just after I became Prime Minister…
…something that when I started working for her in 1988 I never dreamed I would do.
Mr Speaker, as this day of tributes begins, I would like to acknowledge that there are Members here from all parties across this House who profoundly disagreed with Mrs Thatcher…
…but who have come here today willing to pay their respects.
Let me say to those Honourable Members:
Your generosity of spirit does you credit, and speaks more eloquently than any one person can of the strength and spirit of British statesmanship and democracy.
Margaret Thatcher was a remarkable type of leader.
She said, very clearly: I am not a consensus politician, but a conviction politician.
These convictions – linked profoundly with her upbringing and values – can be summed up in a few short phrases:
Sound money. Strong defence. Liberty under the rule of law.
You shouldn’t spend what you haven’t earned.
Governments don’t create wealth – businesses do.
The clarity of these convictions was applied with great courage to the problems of the age.
And the scale of her achievements is only apparent when you look back to Britain in the 1970s.
Successive governments had failed to deal with what was beginning to be called ‘the British disease’.
Appalling industrial relations. Poor productivity. Persistently high inflation.
Though it seems absurd today, the state had got so big that it owned our airports and airline, the phones in our houses, and trucks on our roads. They even owned a removal company.
The air was thick with defeatism; there was a sense that the role of government was simply to manage decline.
Margaret Thatcher rejected this defeatism.
She had a clear view about what needed to change.
Inflation was to be controlled – not by incomes policies, but by monetary and fiscal discipline.
Industries were to be set free into the private sector.
Trade unions should be handed back to their members.
People should be able to buy their own council homes.
Success in these endeavours was never assured.
Her political story was a perpetual battle.
In the country, in this place – and sometimes in her own Cabinet.
Her career could have taken an entirely different path.
In the late 40s, before she entered politics, the then Margaret Roberts went for a job at ICI.
The personnel department rejected her application and afterwards wrote:
“This woman is headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated.”
Mr Speaker, even her closest friends would agree she could be all those things…
…but the point is this: she used that conviction and resolve in the service of her country and we are the better for it.
Mr Speaker, Margaret Thatcher was also a great Parliamentarian.
She loved and respected this place, and was for many years its finest debater.
She was utterly fastidious in her preparation.
I was a Junior Party Researcher in the late 80s, and the trauma of preparation for Prime Minister’s Questions is still seared into my memory.
Twice a week, it was as if the arms of a giant octopus shook every building in Whitehall for every analysis of every problem and every answer to every question.
Her respect for Parliament was instilled in others.
Early in her first government, a junior Minister was seen running through the Members’ Lobby.
His hair was dishevelled and he was carrying both a heavy box and a full tray of papers on his arm.
Another Member cried out: “slow down, Rome wasn’t built in a day!”
To which the Minister replied: “Yes, but Margaret Thatcher wasn’t the foreman on that job.”
As Tony Blair rightly said this week, Margaret Thatcher was one of the very few leaders who changed not only the political landscape of their own country, but the rest of the world too.
She was no starry-eyed internationalist, but again, her approach was rooted in simple, clear principles.
Strength abroad begins with strength at home.
Deterrence; not appeasement.
The importance of national sovereignty – which is why she fought so passionately for Britain’s interests in Europe…
…and always believed Britain should retain its own currency.
Above all she believed to the core of her being that Britain stood for something in the world – for democracy, for the rule of law, for right over might.
She loathed Communism and believed in the invincible power of the human spirit to resist and ultimately defeat tyranny.
She never forgot that Warsaw, Prague and Budapest were great European cities, capitals of free nations temporarily trapped behind the Iron Curtain.
Today, in different corners of the world, there are millions of people who know that they owe their freedom, in part, to Margaret Thatcher.
In Kuwait, which she helped free from Saddam’s jackboot.
Across Eastern and Central Europe.
And of course, in the Falklands.
In a week from now, as people gather in London to lay Margaret Thatcher to rest, the sun will be rising over the Falklands.
And because of her courage, and the skill, bravery and sacrifice of our armed forces – it will rise again for freedom.
Mr Speaker, much has been said about the battles Margaret Thatcher fought.
She certainly did not shy from the fight – and that led to arguments, to conflict, yes: even to division.
But what is remarkable, looking back now, is how many of those arguments are no longer arguments at all.
No one wants to return to strikes called without a ballot.
No one believes that large industrial companies should be owned by the state.
The nuclear deterrent, NATO and the Special Relationship are widely accepted as the cornerstones of our security and defence policies.
We argue – sometimes passionately – about tax in this House; but none of us is arguing for a return to tax rates of 98 per cent.
So many of the principles that Lady Thatcher fought for are now part of the accepted political landscape in our country.
As Winston Churchill once put it, there are some politicians who ‘make the weather’ – and Margaret Thatcher was undoubtedly one of them.
Mr Speaker, in the Members Lobby of the House of Commons there are rightly four statues.
Lloyd George – who gave us the welfare state.
Winston Churchill – who gave us victory in war.
Clement Attlee – who gave us the NHS.
And Margaret Thatcher – who rescued our country from post-war decline.
They say that cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Well in 1979 came the hour, and came The Lady.
She made the political weather.
She made history.
And let this be her epitaph: that she made Britain great again.