My immediate and lasting memory of Mrs. Thatcher — Maggie as we called her — is sitting next to her in the late sixties at a dinner table as she scorched a bunch of City of London financial types. I was astonished. She wasn’t yet the Iron Lady. She wasn’t in government. Labour was in power. She was an obscure back bench Conservative MP, elected only in 1959, noticed in those sexist days (has much changed?) as much for her hats and aggressive hair style as for her passionate defence of grammar schools under threat of closure from Labour.
What she did with the City of London men was later characterised as a “hand-bagging.” A black Asprey bag she always carried was metaphorically wielded against people she saw as standing in the way of the greatness of Britain as Boudica, the leader of a British tribe, wielded a lance against the Roman occupiers. I suppose that as a new national editor (of The Sunday Times), and with normal male presumption , I had expected to lead the questioning of the ten or so big names and the table. I didn’t stand a chance. Maggie pounded and pummeled them all by herself for an hour. I can’t pretend this is verbatim but it went something like this: “All you people are interested in is moving paper around, making money not things. What are you doing for British industry? When are you going to help business stand up to the unions?” They murmured, they shuffled, they were outclassed. British elections — six weeks to a vote and no paid television ads — have never been as corrupted by money as much as American, so she was not turning off a potential source of funding as an American candidate would fear to do. Still these were men — all men of course — who were influential and articulate and used to reverence not rebuke.
Maggie could be seductive in private conversation one on one, more so as she matured, the strident voice of the public halls giving way to a softer, more seductive style, hand on an arm, intent eye to eye in persuasion. She was afraid of nobody, respecter of no convention she considered archaic. The British custom at dinner parties was always for the host to murmur “coffee?” which was signal for “the ladies” to leave for the powder room while the men, over cigars and port, got down to serious business. It was a small sensation — regarded in some circles as a grave breach of etiquette — when at a dinner party I attended thrown by her egregious confidante Woodrow Wyatt, Maggie stayed in her seat unabashed, uninvited, and unfazed by the arguments over the cigars (in this case by a couple of captains of industry who wanted to be part of Europe and she defiantly raised the Union Jack).