Thatcher colleagues recall encounters with their straight talking leader

Henry Bellingham MP

Henry Bellingham MP - Credit: Matthew Usher

Former colleagues and veteran Conservative MPs last night recalled their encounters with the straight talking leader.

North-West Norfolk Henry Bellingham, who served as a backbencher in her government after he was elected in 1983, said she was an outstanding leader, who was 'very approachable'.

He said: 'You knew straight away if she didn't agree with you. But she would let you have your say.'

'She was a truly outstanding leader of the Conservative party and the country. She put the great back into Britain.'

He said that while she was divisive, he thought history would judge her very well.

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'Like all great leaders it's difficult to be a good leader without making enemies,' he added. 'She was always a patriot – everything she did she thought was the right thing for Britain.'

'As a junior MP, as I was then, we were very much in awe of her, always very respectful towards her and she was very charismatic.'

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He said his fondest memory was of her visit to Castle Acre in West Norfolk in the run up to the 1983 election.

'So we had to prepare a rally for her at one day's notice. And we managed it. We gave her a great reception in a Norfolk village on a sunny day. Although I had met her before it was the first time I saw her truly at first hand with all her charisma and star qualities. I'll remember that day for a long time.'

MP Keith Simpson, who was a special adviser, said she 'changed the weather of British politics'.

The Broadland MP said: 'Love her or loathe her – there are a lot of people who divide down the middle on that – she dominated British politics really for the last 30-odd years. There are very few British prime ministers that have had a period named after them or have – to use a Churchill expression –changed the weather.'

'She challenged the status quo and she changed the nature of the debate. It is incredible to think that only 30 years ago the state ran the main airline.

'For years in the 1980s she had special advisers into Downing Street and she questioned all the special advisers about their policy areas. I was defence. You realised, and I took the advice of people who worked for her, you really had to know your stuff. She believed in really knowing the nitty gritty of policy. She enjoyed debating the policy – at times she could be very rough and at times she went totally over the top and could be thoroughly aggressive and rude. She believed that fierce debate heard all the arguments, for and against.'

He said that it was 'pretty formidable' to come under that sort of barrage from her and he felt constrained by the fact that she was a woman.

He said: 'In my lifetime, for a woman to be a leader of the Conservative Party and prime minister, something Labour and the Lib Dems have not had yet... My generation found it difficult to argue against a woman. You felt constrained – that and the fact she was prime minister. She wanted to know that if you knew your subject and believed in what you were saying she would eventually claw back and say 'you have convinced me'. That was quite remarkable.'

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