Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Iron Lady In Winter

Margaret Thatcher is slipping, but she hasn't fallen completely.

At 83, and reportedly suffering from dementia, she makes few public appearances these days.

She walks with tiny, deliberate steps, all her effort seemingly concentrated on getting from A to B.

But she managed to summon up a hint of the old steel, as she paused at the hotel entrance for the photographers, shooting them a determined glare of the type that once reduced Cabinet ministers - and Brussels bureaucrats - to jelly. And instead of being shepherded past the crowd of admirers in the bar on her way to the top table, she was thrust straight into the middle of them.

Not that she had anything to fear.

"How many times in your life, do you get to meet a legend? She will be remembered for hundreds of years," said Nikki Sinclaire, a UKIP Euro election candidate.

These are Thatcher's people - true believers who had paid upwards of £125 each for the opportunity to have dinner in her presence, including several current Tory MPs, the novelist Frederick Forsyth and the UKIP leader Nigel Farage.

"You are my heroine," said one woman.
"You inspired me," said another, reaching out to grasp her fragile hand, "we need more like you".
Ms Sinclaire explained that she was standing for the UK Independence Party in the West Midlands. "Good for you. Never give up, never give up," Lady Thatcher told her.

Suddenly, the reporter's dream comes true. What do you say?

Then, unexpectedly, as she pushed further into the crowd, I found myself face-to-face with her.

"It's an honour to meet you," I said, shaking her hand and, for reasons which now escape me, adding: "I come from the North East."

She seemed delighted. "Thank you for coming down. Give them my warm regards," she said.

The dementia comes and goes, as it does with most people.

Her daughter, Carol, recently wrote about her battle with dementia and that on bad days "she can hardly remember the beginning of a sentence by the time she got to the end". There was little sign of that here.

"I think she gets a bad press about how bad her condition is. She comes to visit us and talks to people for hours without any trouble and of course the pensioners love her," said Susan Smith, of the Chelsea Pensioners' Appeal, one of Lady Thatcher's charities.

But this was a good night.

As she reached the end of her final procession through tables of applauding admirers, pausing at the top of the stairs for a farewell wave, a chant went up from the back of the room which summed up the night perfectly and - if she heard it - will have left her with a smile on her face.
"Ten more years! Ten more years! Ten more years!"

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