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Monday, March 19, 2012

Still the Iron Lady: Dignified, elegant - and in remarkably good spirits. A unique portrait of Baroness Thatcher ...

Former Prime Minister spotted enjoying the spring sunshine in a London park

By Andrew Pierce.

Contented lady: Baroness Thatcher was immaculately dressed and in good spirits during a visit to a London park

Once, her very presence struck fear into everyone from fellow world leaders to those ‘Tory wets’ she brutally purged from her Cabinet.

Her political heyday may be long gone, but the same gravitas was instantly recognisable in Lady Thatcher during a rare public outing last week to enjoy the spring sunshine in a London park.

Accompanied by Kate, her ever-faithful carer of the past ten years, the 86-year-old former prime minister sat contentedly watching a group of boys playing football.

She was in remarkably good spirits, happy to chat with admirers who stopped to speak to her as she relaxed on a park bench. To the evident delight of Lady T, a young hound which had been sprinting around the park jumped up on to the bench. She didn’t hesitate to stroke the dog affectionately.

As ever, Lady Thatcher was dressed immaculately, this time in her favourite long green overcoat with a lemon yellow scarf and mitten gloves. Her make-up was flawless. A hairdresser, who visits at least once a week, ensures those distinctive blonde tresses — though whiter than they once were — are never out of place.

But it was the comfortable sandals, rather than elegant heels and padded shoulders — the signature of her days in Downing Street — which betrayed her advancing years and unsteadiness on her feet.

A walking stick perched at the end of the bench was another indication. But, in typically Thatcherite fashion — refusing to accept any sign of weakness (particularly in others), she often stubbornly refuses to use the stick.

Still fiercely proud, the woman who used to survive on four hours’ sleep a night makes few allowances for her own physical frailties.

Lady Thatcher — who was Britain’s longest-serving prime minister in more than a century and, of course, the first and so far only woman to conquer the summit of British political life — has suffered a series of strokes in recent years, which triggered the onset of dementia.

Her mental frailty was the theme of the controversial recent film, The Iron Lady, which focused on her twilight years. (Neither she nor her son and daughter, Sir Mark and Carol, have seen the movie.)

Nowadays, Lady Thatcher spends most of her time in her elegant four-storey home in Belgravia with Kate, a trained private nurse, who works full-time with the former PM. Kate also lives in, serving as Lady Thatcher’s cook, her dresser and, most importantly, devoted friend and companion.

Another carer, a Yorkshire-born nurse called Anne, has also been employed in the past six months to share the responsibilities. And the police protection officers are never far away.

Aside from the odd visit to the park, there are also occasional lunches at Lady Thatcher’s favourite Goring Hotel, also in Belgravia, where Kate Middleton and her family stayed the night before the royal wedding.

Only two weeks ago, she was there with Mark Worthington, who was her personal private secretary for almost 20 years. But, most days, she is simply content to sit at home in her favourite armchair in the drawing room, listening to classical music.

She skims the newspapers, watches the news on television — although her favourite television programme is Songs Of Praise — and reads selected mail. Hundreds of letters pour into her House of Lords office each week, and she still signs books and photographs for well-wishers.

A small but steady stream of visitors forms the devoted and highly protective inner-circle.

Cynthia Crawford, known as ‘Crawfie’, who was Lady Thatcher’s dresser, confidante and travelling companion in Downing Street, comes to stay in London for a week at a time. Sir Bernard Ingham, the curmudgeonly Yorkshireman who was her Downing Street press secretary, is another regular visitor, along with Alison Wakeham.

Her husband John, the former Cabinet minister, was badly injured in the IRA bomb which killed his first wife, Roberta, at the Grand Hotel in Brighton 1984. Alison had been his secretary at the time of the terrorist attack.

Dame Sue Tinson, a former boss at ITN, and Conor Burns, the MP for Bournemouth West, are also regulars.

Sadly, there are infrequent appearances from her children, as Mark lives in Spain and Carol in Switzerland. Sir Mark’s two children, Michael, 22, and Amanda, 18, from his first marriage to American-born Diane Burgdorf — whom he divorced in 2005 — are only occasional visitors, since they both live in Texas.

After a long day in Downing Street, Lady Thatcher used to kick off her shoes in the flat upstairs and unwind with a stiff whisky. These days, it is a weak gin and tonic before dinner.

Because her short-term memory is poor, she is now most comfortable in small groups of friends. She avoids events with large crowds, and will be absent when the Queen attends a ceremony in Parliament tomorrow to mark her Diamond Jubilee.

Lady and the scamp: The dog entertains the former Prime Minister, her helper Kate (centre) and a woman park-goer

Formidable: Former Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher in her heyday (left) and (right) the years are beginning to take their toll on The Iron Lady

A force to be reckoned with: Lady Thatcher with Geoffrey Howe... but these days she is simply content to sit at home in her favourite armchair in the drawing room, listening to classical music

‘Lady Thatcher will watch it on the television at home,’ says a friend. ‘She is still very interested in what’s going on. And she still has very strong views — as you can imagine.’

There have also been a clutch of invitations to mark the 30th anniversary of victory in the Falklands War next month — one of the defining moments of her premiership.
But she has declined them all.

Her friends insist that she is comfortable and content. As one says: ‘There are flashes of the old Lady T, when you have to have your wits about you. And whenever you go round, she is always immaculately dressed as if she’s off to a night at the opera. But it’s a quiet life these days, and early to bed.’

Looking at her sitting on the park bench, however, there is one thing that is conspicuous by its absence: her famous handbag.

As Prime Minister, she once declared women ‘are generally better at wielding the handbag than the bayonet’.

Now, though, it seems Britain’s greatest-ever woman politician no longer has need to wield either.



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