Mulroney on Thatcher: ‘She could dish it out, but she could take it’

The former PM on clashes, common causes, and a ‘White Cliffs of Dover’ duet with the Iron Lady

Margaret Thatcher, in fashion at last

Peter Turnley/Corbis

Margaret Thatcher, in fashion at last
Peter Turnley/Corbis

Brian Mulroney came to know Margaret Thatcher, who died yesterday at age 87, when they were both Conservative prime ministers. They remained friends after leaving politics. The former Canadian PM spoke with me about Thatcher from his law office in Montréal. This is an edited transcript of the conversation:

Q: Given Margaret Thatcher’s age and health, were you braced for her death?

A: No, frankly, I was shocked. While I knew Margaret had been in decline, I certainly didn’t think it was going to happen this quickly.

Q: You were friends, but you also famously clashed with her over South Africa, back when you were championing tougher sanctions against the apartheid regime and she was resisting the move. How did your personal relationship survive that strain?

A: She could dish it out, but she could take it. And I saw in her other qualities and other leadership dimensions beyond this serious policy difference that we had on South Africa. We used that to build our way back to commonalities of approach. We agreed on the economy. We basically agreed on Europe—not on the unification of Germany, on which we were in disagreement—but on the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact.

Q: Beyond her personal presence, what was it about her record, her policies, that made her such a watershed  figure?

A: She inherited the sick man of Europe in 1979 and transformed it into a powerhouse. When she left office, it was Britain redefined. And of course the frosting on the cake was her action in the Falklands, where she gave Britain back some of its pizzazz, addressed some past yearning and great memories. So she gave them back their pride. That was the first great thing she did.

Q: Beyond how she changed Britain, though, what stands out for you about her impact internationally?

A: I was there watching as she played a very key role with President Reagan and Chancellor Kohl, others at the G7 and NATO, in terms of the decapitation of the Soviet Union. In her case, she was fully consistent. Every argument that she ever made internationally didn’t have a great deal to do with her contempt for Communism—she never really got into that. What she talked about was giving freedom to tens of millions of people in Central and Eastern Europe. She was an inspirational leader when it came to discussing her belief in freedom. More visceral and moral.

Q: You wrote in your memoirs that you saw other dimensions, not just the Iron Lady persona.

A: Like all of us, there were many facets to Margaret Thatcher’s personality. In private she was kind, thoughtful, charming. Very attentive to her interlocutors. She took time to be concerned—she knew all about my children and [wife] Mila and so on.

Q: And you kept in touch with her after you were both out of office.

A: Oh yes. I’ve told the story of Mila and I being with her and [her husband] Denis, and Nancy Reagan, as guests of Carroll Petrie in Southampton outside of New York. This would have been, I’m going to say, 1998, 1999. After dinner on a Saturday night, Peter Duchin sat down at the piano and started to play, Margaret got up and sang “The White Cliffs of Dover.” She had a lovely contralto voice. And I’m sitting there and I’m saying to myself, here’s one of the greatest prime ministers in history, after Churchill, singing the song that kept the Brit morale alive during the war. So obviously I got up and sang the second verse with her.

Q: In her heyday, the fact that she was a woman must have made her stand out at any summit of political leaders. Were you very conscious of that?

A: She was the only woman. Always perfectly coiffed, splendidly dressed—beautiful maroon or dark blue suits. That lovely diamond brooch. She would never speak to an issue without having absolutely exhausted the research on the file. She spoke very confidently because of it.

Q: That description of complete mastery of files will fit with the public impression of her as disciplined and unflappable. Was she always like that?

A: I saw some doubt and hesitation in her only after she was overthrown and left office.

Q On the subject of her being overthrown, you were with her in Paris on Nov. 20, 1990, the day many of her own MPs had turned against her. What do you recall about that dramatic moment?

A: I’m leaving to go to the [Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe] summit in Paris, and Robert Maxwell [the British Labour MP and newspaper baron], of all people, asks to see me at the Ritz in Montréal. He tells me that Margaret Thatcher is going to be overthrown. I think he’s nuts. But because he’s told me that, I pay attention. When I arrive in Paris, I’m seated across from Margaret at the conference table. I make detailed notes—what she’s wearing, what she says, just on the off chance that for once in his life Maxwell turns out to be right. Well, by God, he was.

Q: When did you realize his tip was correct?

A: That night, when the vote count [of Thatcher’s caucus] was in, and we met for dinner in Versailles, and she came to me and said, ‘Brian, tonight I need a friend.’ She was as courageous as they come, but she was badly, badly shaken. She conveyed that to Mila and me. But when she went back to the official dinner, 35 heads of government, she put on that smile. Yet when the dinner was over she came to me and said, ‘Will you walk me out?’ So she was on my arm, I walked her to her car. She flew back to London and resigned the next day.