Say what you like about the sculptor Neil Simmons and his marble Maggie Thatcher, he’s certainly captured those familiar wrinkled and leathery features. Yes, you’d have to go a long way to see a better handbag. The lifelike accessory won golden opinions from the Labour MP Tony Banks after he unveiled the statue of the former prime minister at the artist’s workshop on 1 February. “Mrs Thatcher’s handbag was her political trademark, but Neil has also got her big hair,” added Banks, whose own deliciously teased coiffure, incidentally, cries out to be immortalised by the stonemason’s art.
Once, an old lefty like Tony Banks would have loudly demanded to be turned to stone if he were caught casting idolatrous eyes over Maggie’s bust. In those far-off days, he might have dreamt of the Tory leader mounting a scaffold, but it would not have been the harmless apparatus on which she posed for Simmons.
“I used to say that we needed a statue of Mrs Thatcher so that, come the revolution, we could pull it over,” said Banks. “But now I’m chairman of the works of art committee, no one better touch it.”
The MPs commissioned the effigy for the members’ lobby of the Commons, which is home to bronzes of distinguished premiers including Disraeli and Churchill. Banks argues that Baroness Thatcher has earned her plinth, being Britain’s first woman prime minister.
The claims of the present occupant of No 10 can hardly be overlooked. Will Tony Blair soon be fitted for marmoreal overshoes? The answer will shock the bien pensants who claim to detect traces of vanity in our prime minister.
Banks believes it is by no means premature for the commemorative chisel to begin essaying Blair’s features. Indeed, Banks’s representatives have already made tentative approaches to Downing Street about obtaining snaps of the Prime Minister, to help the as-yet-uncommissioned artist get his line and length.
The PM’s personal effects and cherished familiars would also come in handy. For his Thatcher, Neil Simmons not only recreated his subject’s luggage, he also placed a whisky tumbler at her side, and has her gripping parliamentary order papers. That wouldn’t do at all for Tony Blair, with his marked reluctance to outstay his welcome in the chamber. But there is no reason why he shouldn’t be seen with a refreshing mug of tea to hand, and the colours of Newcastle United knotted proudly at his throat.
No reason, that is, except for prime ministerial reluctance. The word Banks uses is “coy”: Blair is coy about supplying photographs or getting involved in any other way with a marble doppelganger. Banks talks of statues, but it seems his leader sees only stumbling blocks.
Even if he were enthusiastic, there would still be the problem of money. A life-size facsimile of a politician is a substantial undertaking: a big lump of mineral is not the only thing it puts a hole in. The so-called “statch of Thatch” cost £50,000; the cash was stumped up by an anonymous admirer. Banks said: “To commission a statue of Mr Blair, we would have to find a wealthy donor.”
Bernie Ecclestone? He might be willing to chip in for a Tony Blair? “If he was, I’d be delighted to accept his money.”
Banks’s more immediate problem is what to do with a two-tonne Maggie Thatcher. Parliamentary convention states that she can’t be installed at Westminster until five years after her death. This has upset a dozen Tory MPs, who are raising a motion to have the rules overturned, with absolutely no prospect of success. The National Portrait Gallery has already said no to the likeness of the baroness. “Too domineering,” said a spokesman, perhaps savouring the ambiguity of his quote.
One proposal is for the figure to go on loan to Lake Havasu, in the Arizona Desert, where once London Bridge was painstakingly reassembled. “We would be very, very excited,” said a local. My Channel 4 colleague John Sparks made inquiries among the decision- makers of Grantham, Lincolnshire, the lady’s home town. “We would work harder with her looking over our shoulder,” they said. In the Falklands, scene of the Iron Lady’s reputation-sealing victory, the message was: “A visit by the baroness is always welcome.” But the Royal Navy wasn’t convinced by the idea of giving the replica pride of place on the prow of a battleship. “The Iron Figurehead, you mean?” said our source. “Too heavy for today’s warships, I’m afraid.”
According to Tony Banks, the statue will be kept somewhere safe, probably in the London area, until it finally goes on show. Lady Thatcher will be reassured. It is understood that she likes the piece. And it seems she’ll have the last laugh over those critics who have cruelly claimed that she’s lost all her marbles.
Stephen Smith is a Channel 4 News reporter