When the lady lost her bearings

Highlights from the passing of a hurricane — encounters with the Iron Lady by John Sergeant, then of

John Sergeant

“Handbagged" at the embassy in Paris
It was the most important broadcast of my life, though it was more panto than high drama: it made my career and finished hers off. It was based on a misunderstanding, and as one of my rivals observed bitterly at the time, "You're going to be famous for making a bloody mistake."

When, on 20 November, I stood outside the British embassy in Paris waiting for the result of the first round of the Conservative leadership election, about 13 million people were watching. It was in the middle of the BBC Six O'Clock News. It was a cold, clear night, as it had rained for most of the day. After four frustrating years on the back benches, the prime minister's most deadly opponent, Michael Heseltine, was challenging her in open combat. Margaret Thatcher, who was in Paris attending an international conference, seemed invincible. So the shock of being told that she would have to face a second ballot, if there was to be any chance of surviving, came as a blow. After checking with a No 10 source, I confidently informed the nation she would not be coming out to make a comment.

I could not know she would resign two days later, but I was convinced she would say nothing until she had consulted with colleagues.

My earpiece was not working properly and as a result I did not hear the newsreader, Peter Sissons, shout: "She's behind you." Indeed, up and down the country people shouted: "She's behind you." Still I heard nothing, but I instinctively turned to see Thatcher, a man from No 10, and her press secretary, Bernard Ingham, charging towards me demanding to know where the microphone was. I helpfully offered them my microphone, but was elbowed roughly aside by Ingham. Thatcher did not, as is sometimes alleged, hit me with her handbag, but there was a general air of chaos. Many of the watching millions concluded, rightly, that she had lost her grip on power. It was only later I discovered that Ingham was struggling to get Thatcher past me to a microphone that had been set up for her to speak to the press.

Instead, she stopped at my microphone, thanked all those who had voted for her and announced that she would stand in the second ballot. She was her dutiful self, determined to disguise her true feelings and anxious, above all, to appear in charge. The effect of this fleeting interview was to give a boost to my career which has continued for the past 20 years. It was the scoop of my life.

John Sergeant was chief political correspondent of the BBC between 1998 and 2000

Geoffrey Howe

The House of Commons savaging

My resignation speech was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe. I was more concerned to secure a change of policy than a change of prime minister. The speech could be presented either as a wet blanket, or as an important moment, and I was concerned that it shouldn't be a flop, but should make an impact. I didn't visualise an impact of that kind.

You must remember that Margaret Thatcher and I worked together for 15 years, which is longer than many marriages, so people should concentrate on our marriage, rather than on our divorce. It was only a year since I had made a speech marking Thatcher's tenth anniversary as prime minister, which carried the message that we were all proud of what we and she had achieved. I closed it with a paragraph from Peter Jenkins's article in the Guardian that day: he said that she was "a leader with the courage of her convictions" who had "put her country on its feet again". I wasn't at that time saying, "It's time for her to move on," although many people were beginning to think that. And then a year went past in which we had the poll tax, so the party had become much less enchanted during that time.

I am sure that, without her resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election. The Thatcher government created and established Thatcherism, John Major saved it from Kinnockism, and Blair consolidated it. So it was a very important change. If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born.

Geoffrey Howe resigned as deputy prime minister on 1 November 1990, and made his speech to the Commons 12 days later

Oona King

Disapproving student of politics

I was 11 when she became prime minister, and it felt as though she'd sucked the clean air out of my universe. She made us all so mean-spirited. Even as a feminist, I could muster only muted respect for her extraordinary achievement in becoming Britain's first female prime minister.

How could I respect someone who smashed the glass ceiling, only to reinforce it with concrete? She trebled child poverty and infected our entire country with her misanthropic view that society didn't exist. Her actions eroded rights for women and the underprivileged every day in countless ways.

I have always found it hard to forgive gratuitous physical or social violence, the exceptions being when the perpetrators themselves have been brutalised. Show me evidence of Margaret Thatcher's childhood neglect or abuse, and I will forgive her unconditionally. Until then - even 30 years later - I fear I won't. She sacrificed whole communities. And if hindsight proves she merely hastened the end of livelihoods that would never have survived the new century, the fact is, she did it with relish.

Oona King was Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow from 1997-2005. This is an edited extract of a piece published in March 2009