Did Margaret Thatcher "get jokes"?

Her official biographer, Charles Moore, suggests not.

An interesting snippet surfaces from Andrew Gimson's ConservativeHome interview with Charles Moore, author of the long-awaited official biography of Margaret Thatcher, the first part of which is published today. In answer to Gimson's query as to whether the former prime minister had a sense of humour, Moore said:

I’d say these things called jokes, which have punch lines and a set-up and say things like ‘there’s an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman’, are fundamentally male, and she had absolutely no understanding of them whatever. But this does not mean she had no sense of humour. It’s just different. She had a sense of wit because she had a verbal directness which is almost biblical Judaic. Something would come out quickly in riposte, which was sort of funny, yes it was funny really, it was crisp. Another thing was a sense of fun which was about enjoying a situation. There’s a sense of theatre. So one reason why she was such fun to work for I think – not fun to work with, as a Cabinet member, but to work for as say private secretary - is that she’s always terrifically enjoying all this, and there’s a pantomime element in her which is camping herself up, spoofing herself, you know, wanting to go and tap you on the shoulder and wave the handbag. You know, playful. She didn’t understand double entendres at all, of course. That comes into the book.

His suggestion that a traditional joke, exemplified here by his "Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman" example, is a fundamentally male technique for humour seems to me an entirely baseless one. Professional female comedians come in all shapes, sizes and styles, and I've never heard it said before that women are any more or less likely to be able to handle the telling of a formulaic joke. His distinction between crisp wit, a sense of fun and a more theatrical humour is a good one, though - if nothing else, Thatcher is sure to emerge from Moore's Not for Turning as a more, not less, complex figure.

Margaret Thatcher shares a joke with American President Ronald Reagan. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.