Maggie Thatcher and Me

L'affaire Mulroney-Schreiber

On Monday, Douglas Gibson Books/McClelland & Stewart will release Memoirs: 1939-1993 by Brian Mulroney. The following is an excerpt from that book:
Before leaving for Paris I met at the Ritz in Montreal with British press baron and Labour MP Robert Maxwell, who was accompanied by his Canadian adviser André Bisson. As he left, Maxwell said, "Prime Minister, I regret to tell you that your friend Mrs. Thatcher will soon be overthrown by her own party." When I expressed my disbelief, Maxwell showed me a Times editorial appearing the next morning that described such a challenge and said, "This is only the beginning. She is through"- a comment he repeated to me for effect, and clearly with some pleasure.
With this information in mind, I watched Mrs. Thatcher closely throughout my time in Paris and made journal entries about her performance under stress, with her leadership being decided -- and possibly ended -- by a vote of her caucus back in Westminster.
Margaret Thatcher and Brian Mulroney at the G7 summit in Toronto in 1988. He remembers her grace under fire.
Personal journal: Nov. 18-21, 1990:
Nov. 18:
As I listen to Javier Perez de Cuellar speak to the opening session of the CSCE I am struck by the serenity of Margaret Thatcher, who is seated immediately across the table from me. During my conversation with her earlier this morning she was good natured and fatalistic about tomorrow's vote on her leadership. (Her assistants) Charles Powell and Bernard Ingham are also both encouraged. In any event, her cabinet colleague Douglas Hurd appeared slightly more ominous in his observations, though not in any way disloyal. We merely agreed on the dangers inherent in the secret ballot (of caucus).
As I write, Margaret is, as usual, extremely attentive to the speaker, making the occasional note, paying no attention to Hurd or Ricard, who bookend her. In Canada, political leaders have their leadership review votes when they lose elections. Although I believe and hope she was sincere, it remains astonishing that her leadership is challenged after she won three majority victories for the Conservatives.
Nov. 19:
At lunch today Margaret, in thanking me for messages of support, acknowledged for the first time, at least to me, that much of the criticism directed at her style was due to the fact she was a woman. I quite frankly agree with her view. It is extremely difficult to govern today, and doubly so if you are a non-male. She was quite free from rancour or bitterness and made no criticism of Geoffrey Howe or Michael Heseltine. She expressed astonishment that she should be challenged after three majorities. I told her that in Canada one normally got a statue for an achievement of that nature! She said she had challenged Ted Heath because he had lost.
It is now 5 p.m. and Vaclav Havel has just finished speaking. Margaret, however, remains in her seat. She hasn't moved, attentive to the speaker and courteous to all. She looks good, and unhurried and unconcerned, but I can only surmise that deep down she is in a state of great turmoil. She is one of the historic figures of the modern period. Despite our differences on South Africa and sanctions, often acerbic and blunt, I have viewed her with a genuine respect, and hope sincerely she passes the test tomorrow.
Nov. 20:
Mrs. Thatcher arrived at the conference this morning about an hour late. This never happens. She is normally the most punctual of leaders. Clearly on this historic day she has been in telephone conversation with MPs, etc. In any case, we shall know early tonight whether this remarkable woman will continue in office or whether she will be unceremoniously dumped while attending a very important international conference. (If it went that way, she would no doubt enjoy the parallel with Churchill, whom she affectionately refers to as Winston.) In any case, she is sitting across from me, some 20 feet away, carefully listening to the oratory of the president of Yugoslavia. She looks striking in an attractive purple suit, resplendent with a beautiful and expensive charm brooch on her right lapel. During all of her public appearances, she has maintained a jaunty, confident air, very much a leader - under attack, perhaps, but not one whose dignity has been impaired by the process. I am confident that she will win tonight, although Robert Maxwell predicted to me Friday night in Montreal that "your friend is finished." But, should she be dislodged, both the U.K. and the world stage will quickly miss her leadership and panache.
Nov. 21, 1:45 a.m.:
I have just returned from Versailles, where Mitterrand hosted an impressive formal dinner. Mrs. Thatcher turned up, alone, in spite of the very disappointing vote results broadcast a few hours earlier. She looked very sad when Mila and I chatted with her, while waiting to be called into the salon. The best I could think of saying was, "Margaret, for what it's worth, we'd vote for you any time." She squeezed my arm, hugged Mila, and said nothing.
Prior to dinner all heads of government were required to get together for drinks. I had seen Margaret in a conversation with a group but I stayed off, almost in a corner, with Mila. We were both tired and despite the splendour of the evening wanted only to get back to the hotel for some sleep. At that point Margaret came up and said simply: "Brian, I need a friend to talk to." I was overwhelmed by the sadness in her eyes and her loneliness at that special moment. She seemed to be reeling from the news and said softly, "I won't leave. If they want me to go, they will have to force me out." From this I concluded, perhaps erroneously, that she didn't believe the ballot next week was inevitable. She said, "What concerns me is the party, the divisions in the party."
I said, "But Margaret, you were challenged, you didn't cause the divisions." She looked at me forlornly, and I asked myself what the prime minister of the United Kingdom, with three majority victories to her credit, was doing at Versailles on the night of her greatest political defeat.
I told her about Diefenbaker, who refused to be driven out and insisted on facing a convention. She looked at me and responded simply, "You know, Brian, I don't want any harm to come to the government or party." Mrs. Thatcher's character and absence of malice were again revealed when she said, "You know that Heseltine has millions. Obviously all those dinner parties with MPs have paid off for him." When I interjected, "It possibly helped as well that he picked up some bills" (referring to dinner) she, thinking I was alluding perhaps to other bills by MPs, said, "No, I have no evidence at all of that." Even at this low point, and in private, she rejected an occasion to denigrate her adversary because it would not have been the truth. I have often noticed that quality in her, her great personal honesty and her almost brutal instinct in defending her own views, but a capacity to turn the page, holding no grudge, after the battle was over. Our own ferocious battles over sanctions against South Africa provided ample evidence of that. Over the years she developed, with Mila and me, a very warm and enjoyable relationship -- although I am certain that, to the end, she will consider me a "wet"!
Her searching me out tonight was also exceptional. During such receptions she invariably toured the room chatting with everyone and saved private chats for private moments. She must have been truly bleeding inside to have sought me out for such a sad exchange, because it was not in her character to do so, at least not with me.

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