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19 March 2001

Now, am I in Dartford, or Finchley?

Baroness Thatcher isn't always sure where she is these days. But some Tories still see a role for he

By Quentin Letts

A decade into her political dotage, there is something melancholy about Margaret Thatcher. She is a bit like that giant squid they brought in off the Australian coast last month, a 550lb, 36ft-long leviathan reduced to a limp mound of white flesh. The tangled tentacles have lost their sucking power, the vast eyes stare fishily at fate, and crowds of bystanders gather to gawp while the monster is packaged up and placed on display.

It does not matter that some desperate Conservative candidates are trying to resurrect Lady Thatcher in their general campaign literature, hoping to win back former Tory voters in key areas. Despite their unflagging enthusiasm, and their queuing up to be included with her in a photo-op recently, in the House of Lords the Baroness sits, jaw rigid with disapproval. Around her, they debate the dismantlement of much she once held dear.

Her dress is impeccable and the handbag still hovers at her hip. Occasionally she pats it, as though to reassure herself that no one has pinched it. The hairdo these days is a light ginger candyfloss.

The peers who totter past her front-row seat in the Lords – she sits between the firebrand Lady Young and “young” Robert Cranborne – are a far cry from the praetorian guard who once protected her. These old boys, such as David Waddington, John Peyton and Robert Ferrers, may bow stiffly, but they lack the energy that Messrs Reece, Bell and Ingham used to bring to the job. How her mind must race with memories.

She tries to fill the days. There is a lot of travelling: she is forever agreeing to lecture tours (as much as £35,000 a hit) in the United States and other far-flung realms. In the dustier parts of the American Midwest, she still sometimes gets addressed as “Prime Minister”. Ah, yes! For a few moments it is almost as though the 1991 nightmare never happened. And with the sweeping entrances, the smoked-glass limousines, the security men talking into their sleeves, a girl can feel the old buzz of power.

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On the transatlantic flights, she lifts reading-glasses to her nose and prepares herself as thoroughly as an “old pro” actor learning her lines. But anno domini cannot always be resisted. The politician who long claimed that she needed no more than five hours of sleep a night nowadays finds her chin occasionally dropping during daylight hours.

Home is in Chester Square, Belgravia. It’s a smart address, but the Thatchers’ personal tastes have never been boastful. When they left Downing Street it was unexpectedly dowdy, and the interior decoration of Chester Square is similarly restrained. There is, thank you, none of that Cool Britannia art nonsense on the walls.

Most days, she leaves home before 10am to make the short, chauffeured journey to her office at Chesham Place, global nerve centre of the grandly named but low-profile Thatcher Foundation. Here she remains, often until 7pm, looking at the telephone and placing the flourish of her signature to letters that may be a few paragraphs longer than is entirely necessary.

She will graze off a wholesome bowl of soup and a light sandwich at her desk, should there be a “window” in her diary for lunch. Some months, there are more “windows” than in the Crystal Palace, and she whiles away the long hours with a book. Political memoirs she does not much enjoy, in part because the recent ones, such as Michael Heseltine’s autobiography, made her fizz with fury. She has been known to try some of those “big idea” books they publish in the States – for instance, Hernando de Soto’s The Mystery of Capital – but, between you and me, she often prefers a little light entertainment in the form of a Rosamunde Pilcher.

Sometimes, there is a fellow former statesman to be met, be it a Giscard or a Gorby or a Lee Kuan Yew. That nice young man John Howard, the Australian prime minister, looked in on his recent official visit. And George Bush Snr has kept in touch. Is it too much to expect an invitation to the White House, now that his son is in power?

Perhaps the most important piece of equipment is her television, which is normally switched to teletext so that she can keep an eye on world news. The teletext screen can also tell her what is going on in world financial markets. She was First Lord of the Treasury, after all, and wishes now that she had kept a closer eye on Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson when they were at No 11. Her experience of overambitious chancellors was something she could have told Tony Blair about – but these days she does not see the man from new Labour. There was a time, in the first months after May 1997, when he seemed prepared to listen to her; but the Pinochet business marked the end of their relationship.

These days, the baroness cannot disguise a certain brittleness of morale and attentiveness. At a recent speech in her old Finchley constituency, she managed to call it the wrong name: “I’m delighted to be back in Dartford,” she told her baffled audience. Then there are reports of her drinking the odd whisky. And perhaps most surprising was the way she reportedly yielded to a recent request from William Hague to rein in her comments on the European Union.

Hague knows that if the handbag is over-used it will lose its impact. Her remarks last autumn on the proposed European rapid reaction force created a huge media reaction, but if she makes that sort of outburst more than once a year the press may stop listening. Hague would prefer her to keep her powder dry for the euro referendum. And meanwhile, no more photo opportunities, please.