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Sir Bernard Ingham: My life with Margaret Thatcher

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AN INSIGHT into what the Iron Lady was really like behind closed doors has been given by her chief press secretary, who has lived in Purley for decades.

Sir Bernard Ingham worked for Margaret Thatcher as part of the civil service throughout her premiership from 1979 to 1990 and saw her several times a day throughout that period.

However, he also remained her close friend after her exit from politics and saw her every month up until her death.

"I am extremely sad. I was not expecting it and saw her only one month ago. I thought she was doing well. The last eight years have been difficult because she started to lose her memory very quickly.

"I would tell her what was going on in politics and she would receive it like news every time because she couldn't retain the information. It made for a very empty retirement for someone who was so full of passion during her career."

His fondest memory of his friend was a few months ago when he had visited her on a good day, finding her quite lucid.

"That's the thing with memory loss, you have good and bad days. I told her things that were not going right politically and she sat up and started behaving exactly like she was back in office.

"She said: 'How did we get into this mess and how are we going to get out of it?'

"It was just like we were back in the 1980s and she was sorting out the country's woes. It was very encouraging for me – her spirit was still there and her utter determination to change things for the better."

Sir Bernard, 80, who lives in Monahan Avenue with his wife, reminisced over Lady Thatcher as his boss.

"I think the first thing to say is that she came to office to be prime minister of a country that was thought to be ungovernable. Within three years, that had changed and the UK had acquired a standing on the world stage again.

"A lot of this was down to the success of the Falklands War but also because of the tough way she tackled each problem.

"By the mid-80s, people began to realise the real calibre of Margaret Thatcher – it took seven years for her policies to start turning the economy around and all that time she was under a huge amount of pressure."

One of Sir Bernard's most abiding memories is of 1986 when he walked into his boss's study one evening. She strode over to him rubbing her hands with glee and said: "You know, I think my ideas are finally paying off, I always knew it would work."

Sir Bernard said Thatcher's conviction was unshakeable and she never suffered any moment of doubt or dithering. He also said she used the fact she was a woman to her advantage.

He said: "You have to remember she came to leadership when this country was in dire straits and she turned it completely around – that is why every news channel and every newspaper is full of her this week."

However, as her press secretary, Sir Bernard said there were various moments where her behaviour or policies made for very uncomfortable work.

"As a member of the civil service, it was not my place to agree or disagree with her politics, my job was to explain them to the press and the public," he said.

"I remember one Commonwealth summit when she was utterly adamant about refusing to sanction South Africa when Mandela was in prison. She never felt like she needed to explain herself too much.

"It was often not a very easy road but then, she did not believe in the easy road."

As one of the Prime Minister's closest employees, Sir Bernard said Mrs Thatcher was always utterly businesslike in their dealings at the time.

"I would come in at six o'clock in the evening and we would discuss the day over a scotch. But this was not a club – we talked only about politics.

"And it was also not a time to relax – after 30 minutes, she would be out and getting ready for some dinner. It was a very intensive workplace."

Asked if Mrs Thatcher ever expressed emotion during his time as press secretary, Sir Bernard said she was "not given to a great deal of emotion". However, she did break down frequently when her son was lost in the desert.

"Her family were incredibly important to her. They may have suffered because her job took up so much of her attention but Dennis, her husband, was very self sufficient."

Sir Bernard remembered taking her to a heroic children awards ceremony at one point and his boss turning to him in tears, saying: "You should not have brought me here, I am not strong enough to hear these stories."

The retired civil servant also remembered with a smile Mrs Thatcher's famous temper.

"She argued with such great passion and could dismiss counter-arguments in a second," he said.

"When the controversy began with the 'poll tax', I went to her and said people were saying that a blanket tax was inherently unfair.

"She turned to me and said sternly, 'The rich man in his castle is already paying a great deal of tax'. When I said others were arguing the tax would be very difficult to collect, she said exasperatedly: 'Well it might be difficult in bedsitter land'.

"She had a total lack of tact – that was just her way."

Sir Bernard remained close to his friend all the way up until her death on Monday. He remembers her constancy and utter loyalty – always going out of her way to support the ones she loved.

"My wife had a nasty accident in 1982 when she was run over by a lorry in Surrey Street Market and had fractured her pelvis.

"As soon as [Mrs Thatcher] found out she rang me up and said: 'Well I suppose I will be seeing less of you now'.

"I told her not to be silly and she said, 'No Bernard, you stay with your wife for was long as you need – you need to look after your family'."

Sir Bernard Ingham: My life with Margaret Thatcher


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