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She's Ba-aack! : After a political winter of discontent, Margaret Thatcher thumps her foes in newly published memoirs and makes clear the Iron Lady will remain a strong voice in Britain.

November 21, 1993|William Tuohy | William Tuohy, The Times' European Security correspondent, has headed five foreign bureaus for the paper. His Vietnam War coverage won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969

THE PHOTO ON THE COVER OF THE GUARDIAN LEFT NO DOUBT. IT WAS a waist-down shot, a woman in a tailored tweed skirt and walking shoes, well-turned ankles and a purposeful stride. The caption read: "It has to be said that she comes alive when there is a whiff of gunfire in the air." She was not otherwise identified, but there was the handbag--a heavy black-leather job in her right hand. That bag could only belong to Baroness Thatcher of Kestevan, the former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, known simply as Maggie to millions of Britons and to millions more abroad as "The Iron Lady."

Thatcher is honored, sort of, in the entry under handbagging in the Concise Oxford Dictionary. The lexicographers say it means "to treat ruthlessly or insensitively"--the political mugging in which Thatcher specialized during her 11 1/2 years as Britain's prime minister. Cartoonists delighted in depicting opposition Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock, mine union boss Arthur Scargill, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and other political targets cowering before her flailing handbag; in print it was variously described as "lethal," "loaded," and "steel-reinforced." A Thatcher handbagging was a brusque, lacerating political assault that made enemies, particularly in her own Conservative Party, and led to her overthrow by parliamentary colleagues in November, 1990.

Following her crushing, bewildering defeat and abrupt departure from No. 10 Downing Street (she was out, handbag and baggage, the day after the Tories rejected her and chose John Major as prime minister), she attended farewell parties for her former aides, seeming listless and lost, as if the Iron Lady suffered from metal fatigue, an extraordinary turn of fortune for an enormously assertive world leader. For nearly three years she licked her wounds, snarling just enough to give pause to her enemies: Vengeful and enraged, she was the lioness in winter.

Her sometime speech writer, the playwright Sir Ronald Millar, saw her a year after she was ousted and recalls in his memoirs: "It was clear that the hurt of rejection had been intense. It wasn't just the loss of a job she loved, it was as though someone had pushed her off the planet."

"She was shattered," remembers another intimate. "She literally didn't know what to do with herself. She would see something going wrong and say, 'Let's do something' before she realized she no longer had power to do something."

She had never lost a general election; how could she be jettisoned by the very members of Parliament who owed her their positions? There was no simple answer. Her abrasive, domineering style had left wounds, and in her third term the longest-serving prime minister of this century faced other problems as well--a recession, an unpopular taxing scheme.

The roguish, wealthy Alan Clark, a former Thatcher minister, wrote bluntly in his recently published "Diaries": "There are no true friends in politics. We are all sharks circling and waiting for traces of blood to appear in the water." And he told a reporter recently, "Consider the position of Mrs. Thatcher in 1990. She had become a political liability."

Well, she's back. Her own memoirs, "Margaret Thatcher: The Downing Street Years," published last month and serialized in the daily press, cast a cold shadow over Major's already down-in-the-polls government. His closest advisers regard her as a loose political cannon capable of disrupting his policies. She retains an enthusiastic following among the Tory rank and file, indeed among conservatives everywhere, particularly in the United States and the former communist nations of Eastern Europe.

And she's speaking out, not only in her memoirs, but also in television and radio appearances, in the daily press, in the House of Lords and among old friends. As she says of her political re-emergence, "I knew I had to build a new life, and it took time to shake down and see how we were going to do it."

In recent weeks, Thatcher has visited the United States, the Far East, Russia, and Poland on behalf of her Thatcher Foundation, which she set up to promote Thatcherite principles of economic and political freedom. In Moscow and Warsaw--where she is widely popular for her support for the overthrow of communism--she was received like royalty. Her name in Eastern Europe is much more familiar than Major's or, for that matter, any other world leader. Many remember that, in a sense, she discovered former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and, with President Ronald Reagan, set up an East-West triumvirate.

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