Mrs T the temptress - and a woman who knew all about the seductive powers of politics and wasn't afraid to use them
By Edwina Currie
controversial new film about the young Margaret Thatcher's ten-year
struggle to become an MP is to be screened next week. It tells how
her attempts to break into a world dominated by male MPs were rebuffed
time and again. But she refused to give up and ruthlessly used her
womanly wiles to win through.
Male MPs kept their distance from unique Margaret
Margaret gets it right - as in real life - by taking on a steady job to fund her political ambitions. You need a salary from a boring job that is not emotionally or physically demanding - you save all your energy for the politics.
In her case,
she is shown testing ice cream, but apparently in truth she was
hired to test cake mixes for the J. Lyons tea shop chain. How boring
But Britain in the 1950s was run by returning war heroes and an old school tie network. Politics was seen as men's work. As one lady constituency selector tells Margaret: 'A woman's place is in the home, not in the House.'
Standing in the solidly Labour constituency of Dartford, Kent, she wangles her way into working men's clubs, where women are banned, and busies herself pulling pints. 'Remember,' she shrills to astonished drinkers, 'a Conservative government will be a tax-cutting government.'
he gets little help from neighbouring constituencies, although being only 23 and attractive, she gets a lot of attention. The jealous Tory candidate for Bexley, a young Ted Heath (gloriously played by Sam West), can't stand her but grudgingly concedes to Orpington's MP, Sir Waldron Smithers (Michael Cochrane), that 'there is something about her'.
'Yes,' replies Smithers, taking a swig of whisky. 'The whiff of cheap perfume.' (I don't remember Margaret ever wearing any perfume - but if she did, it would never have been cheap).
What the film doesn't get quite right is that she was never as gawky and gauche as Andrea Riseborough makes out. In fact, she was well brought up with many social graces and had learned the politician's trick of remembering everyone's name and face early in her career.
Heath gets in and it quickly becomes clear that he is a rising star in Parliament, so Margaret tries to get him on her side. At a constituency ball, she takes him outside for a chat.
'With men like you thrusting,' she tells a startled Heath, 'a Conservative government can't be far away.' All she wanted was help and advice, but Ted was never comfortable in the company of women.
Indeed, there is speculation in the film - just as there used to be in the tea rooms - that he was uninterested in the opposite sex.
'He is very close to his mother, you know,' says one character meaningfully. He may have misinterpreted Margaret's attempt at getting him on her side and thought she was propositioning him. But she only wanted him to help her in the way she had helped him win Bexley, although her language is seductive.
'Do you find it in your heart to take a young girl by the hand and guide her into Parliament?' she whispers. 'Take me with you on your journey to power.'
Heath is insulted that she is implying he owes the seat to her. 'We shall never speak of this again,' he mutters pompously. Later, as a Whip, he is asked to sabotage her selection prospects.
lady turns heads: Denis and Margaret Thatcher on their wedding day
Nearly 25 years later, I studied Margaret's problems and tried to learn from her experience when I stood for Parliament. When I was hoping to be chosen for Shrewsbury in Shropshire, another candidate turned up wearing his Territorial Army uniform and accompanied by his pregnant wife. Guess who was selected.
But all these years later, his family rebounded on him - for this was Derek Conway, who found himself in deep trouble for employing his wife and sons on non-jobs at taxpayers' expense.
Margaret tries other no-hope seats, but still gets nowhere. 'Damn the Establishment,' she fumes. By now she has met Denis (played by Rory Kinnear). Divorced, rich and eternally cheerful, he clearly adores her - as Denis was, and did, in real life.
a condition of accepting his stammered marriage proposal, she makes
him promise he will never try to deflect her from her ambition.
But the truth, I understand, is that he didn't approve of Denis because he was divorced and, perhaps worse, liked a drink. It is said that Margaret's parents didn't go to the wedding.
After her father died, a friend who visited the Roberts' home in Grantham, Lincolnshire, reported that there were no pictures of Margaret and Denis together, or of their children. The last picture of their daughter on display was at her graduation from Oxford.
On honeymoon in France, we are given another glimpse into Margaret's focus. When their lovemaking finishes, Denis rolls over and Margaret promptly switches on the light and resumes her studies. When she gives birth to twins, Mark and Carol, she tells Denis that they now have the perfect family, a boy and a girl - 'so there's no need to go through all that again'.
Denis looks stunned. 'What, never?' he asks forlornly. He tells the babies: 'Congratulations, you've just made your mother very happy.'
What was Margaret like as a wife and mother? The film shows her baking, knitting and snipping recipes out of the paper, but the children are a distraction from Margaret's all-consuming goals.
Was that so in real life? A former neighbour once said that whenever Margaret went out, leaving the children with their nanny, she would stride down the road without so much as a backward glance.
Denis on the other hand, would frantically wave at his children in the window the moment the front door shut behind him. In the film, Denis is away in Africa a lot on business. This is only a problem for Margaret if the family-minded constituency selectors insist on meeting her husband before they make their mind up.
'Mummy, can I go to South Africa one day, like Daddy?' asks Mark with foresight. 'I promise I won't get into trouble.'
Eventually, after being turned down in Beckenham and Hemel Hempstead,
Margaret asks Denis for advice. 'Your perceived weakness is that
you are a woman,' he reminds her. 'But that can be your strength
if you work on it.'
The dramatic change in her is exactly how it was. You can trace that in the photographs of her at 18. She was serious and dowdy. There is nothing coquettish or fun-loving about her in those days.
She managed to sail through Oxford without a boyfriend, which took some doing, considering she was basically very pretty and surrounded by lusty young men. When I was there, after her, there were five women's colleges to 25 men's, so we had plenty of choice.
With Margaret discovering her new femininity, she visits the candidates' chairman at Conservative Central Office. Dressed to kill, she presents herself as a helpless woman being held back by men and tearfully enlists his help to get a seat.
This, I am convinced, is very close to the truth but we shall never know for sure because there were only two people in the room. One - the chairman - is now dead, and the other, Margaret, will never tell.
There are just two recorded times in her life when she has cried. The first when her son Mark got lost rally-driving in the Sahara; the other when she was ousted from No 10. But the tears work because the embarrassed chairman suggests she applies for the safe seat of Finchley in North London, where the incumbent, Sir John Crowder (Geoffrey Palmer) is retiring. Everyone does what they can to impede Margaret but she makes the shortlist as the token woman.
the campaign trail: Margaret(Andrea Risborough) uses her charms
particular scene made me jump out of my skin because it mirrored
my own experience. I was given exactly the same advice on the eve
of the selection for South Derbyshire. It worked for me - I held
the seat from 1983 to 1997. And as everyone now knows, it worked
for Margaret in Finchley in 1959. The film ends here, with Margaret
having achieved her ambition. But it was just the birth of the Iron
Lady and a political career that would make her Britain's most outstanding
and charismatic leader since Winston Churchill.
Ted Heath's hatred of her became life long, although when he was prime minister he put her into his government as the token woman. She was also the brightest and best around. She had a good mind, a scientific background and she could add up, which most men couldn't.
I would like to say that Margaret's great struggle made it easier for women to get into Parliament, but I don't think it did. More than 20 years after she won her great battle I was encountering the same prejudices against women because old buffers still ran things.
On my first day in Parliament one of them asked me: 'So which MP are you working for, my dear?' Some things change, but in politics it seems they always stay the same. Margaret's allure was, if anything, enhanced during her time in power. U.S. president Ronald Reagan was smitten by her - 'Margaret and I have a special relationship,' he would say. He particularly loved it when she stood up to him, which he found sexy.
Russia's president Mikhail Gorbachev admitted he found her fascinating, while French president Francois Mitterrand described her as having 'the eyes of Caligula but the mouth of Marilyn Monroe'.
Half her Cabinet were probably secretly in love with her. The other half, along with all the tea room Lotharios, were deeply in lust. The only man she never won over was Ted Heath.
Margaret Thatcher - The Long Walk To Finchley is on BBC4 on Thursday,
June 12 at 9pm.