Westminster Column: Memories of Margaret Thatcher

24th April 2013

I had the great honour of attending Baroness Thatcher’s funeral earlier this week. I was first introduced to Margaret Thatcher by a much loved family friend, Ian Gow MP. It was just before the 1987 General Election when my father, David Mitchell MP, a staunch supporter of Mrs Thatcher from the early days, and I were both standing for Parliament.

Conservative MPs and candidates had assembled at the QE II Centre, the other side of Parliament Square, for a pep talk by the Prime Minister as the campaign that would see her third historic victory got underway. I remember she told us “We shall remain cool, calm and elected”.

“This” said Ian Gow “is David’s boy and he is standing in Gedling. They will be the only father and son team for many years to serve together in the House of Commons”. I stuttered out a few words when she asked why I was not following my father into the family wine business! I remember she said how important family businesses are to the lifeblood of the economy. She wished me well and said she looked forward to seeing me on the Government benches after the Election.

Once elected I would see her occasionally, usually bustling down the long corridors of the Commons. As she approached, always surrounded by a retinue, I would stand stiffly to attention receiving a smile as she passed. She would often come into the Tea Room in those days (she did so much less as time passed which was, perhaps, a mistake) and a colleague would fetch her a cup of tea while those of us at the table at which she had alighted would sit in terror as she enquired about our views on the latest money supply figures or a just published report which she naturally presumed we had spent the previous night reading. She was always careful to find a suitable resting place for her handbag – which seemed to be a bottomless repository for important information of every possible kind.

The one occasion which I will never forget occurred on the night of 21 December 1988. Patrick McLoughlin and I (we both had significant constituency mining interests) had become immensely concerned about the Government’s treatment of the Union of Democratic Mine Workers (UDM). These brave men had continued working during the mining strike which had taken place during the previous Parliament – often at great personal risk and with considerable bravery – while the militant NUM had been striking with the clear intention of destroying the elected Government. The UDM had literally kept the lights on by courageously crossing picket lines and continuing to work.

The mining industry was inevitably slimming down and Patrick and I were concerned that the UDM should be supported and wherever possible their pits kept open. I had raised this issue with Mark Lennox Boyd, her PPS, and very much to my surprise the Prime Minister had not only agreed to meet us but had summoned us both to dine with her in the House of Commons Members’ Dining Room.

As dinner started Patrick & I managed to get a few sentences out before she spoke. She did not draw breath for quite a while! Our food remained uneaten. She quizzed us on what was happening in the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire coalfields. Patrick’s knowledge as a former miner impressed her. As a regular visitor to the Gedling Pit (where Dennis Skinner’s brother, whom I met several times underground, worked) I reported on what my mining constituents were saying.

Just at the moment where we had got her attention and some hard won support her agitated PPS appeared at the table. Reports were coming in of a bomb exploding in an aeroplane over Lockerbie. Mrs Thatcher immediately asked a series of questions, set up emergency meetings and said she would go to Scotland at dawn the next morning. I remember being particularly struck by her saying “this awful tragedy has taken place in Hector’s seat (Hector Munro was the local MP). Find him now and brief him and make sure he comes with me on the plane tomorrow morning”.

For months after, on the rare occasions when I was standing anywhere near her in the Voting Lobbies, she would ask me about the UDM and the mining families who lived in my then constituency of Gedling. Her personal interest and concern sharply at odds with the hard-hearted portrayal of her in much of the media.