Today’s debates in Parliament about Baroness Thatcher were supposed to be a tribute to the first female Prime Minister. If you were looking for the most faithful rendition of this, you should have been sitting in the House of Lords, not the Commons this afternoon. In the Other Place, the debate is always rather more civilised and measured, though it has grown rather rowdier in recent years. But today the speeches painted a fascinating picture of Margaret Thatcher, not least because many of them came from those who worked with or in opposition to her when she was in power. Some were notable by their silence: Lord Howe arrived with notes, but left without speaking. Lord Heseltine was nowhere to be seen. The Chamber was packed to begin with: the Tory benches crammed to bursting, the Labour benches nearly full.
The most powerful speech came from Lord Tebbit, who appeared to struggle rather sincerely with emotion, sighing heavily as he told peers that his great regret was, because of the commitments he had made to his wife (who was left permanently disabled by the Brighton bombing), he left her government and did not return as a minister when she asked. ‘I left her, I fear, at the mercy of her friends. That I do regret.’ He, like many others, had a story to tell of the personal kindness his party leader had shown to him, allowing him to continue working as a Cabinet minister while being absent for three months.
Lord Waddington gave a glimpse of her human frailty. After the Brighton bomb, he said he saw her ‘slumped’ behind the scenes in the conference hall, saying she couldn’t go out and give her speech. He watched Gordon Reece egg her on, and off she went.
The criticism in the Upper Chamber was more gentle, but it was answered forcefully and politely by Lord Lamont, who said he felt compelled to answer some of the comments made about the negative impact on certain communities. He argued that it was costing the state so much to prop up jobs in ‘loss-making industries’ that other job creation was being stifled.
Those who had found themselves working against her remained respectful. The strongest criticism came from Baroness Royall, who led the Labour tributes. She remained polite, and praised Thatcher’s ability to smash the glass ceiling, ‘and proved that it could be done but she did not hold out a helping hand for others to follow’. And she criticised Thatcher’s refusal to espouse ‘the consensual notion of One Nation’.
Paddy Ashdown gave a speech of far greater generosity than Clegg’s offering in the Commons. He said she was ‘the greatest Prime Minister of our age’, but also said she did little for the gay community, the people of Scotland and the standing of women in British society. He also joked that he was ‘ritually handbagged twice a week’ by her.
There was even some praise for her looks. Baroness Trumpington complained that the many men who had spoken had failed to compliment Thatcher on her looks. ‘It took a French president to appreciate it,’ she said, referring to Mitterand. Later, Lord Gummer went just a little bit further, telling peers that the former Prime Minister had ‘beautiful hands and lovely ankles and she knew how to use them’. He added: ‘It was a pleasure to see her, the way she turned herself out.’
David Cameron watched some of the proceedings from the Bar of the House. He was smiling throughout, nodding and chuckling every so often at an anecdote that he recognised. He particularly enjoyed a comment from Lord Forsyth that Thatcher had been one of the biggest purchasers of stationery from Smythson, and another story from the same peer about her winning at the races and joining in a rendition of ‘Roll out the barrel’. ‘I thought, if only people could see the real Margaret Thatcher,’ he said. Some of the tales of her personal kindness and steely humour might have given listeners a further glimpse of that woman today.
The debate continues. If you have a chance, do listen in. Or read the whole Lords Hansard tomorrow when it is published. It was a magnificent and fascinating debate: not just because its participants praised the Iron Lady, but because some of them criticised her, too, in a gracious and polite manner.
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