Abnormal, petty, overindulgent

Glen Newey · Aitken’s Thatcher

Earlier this year the first volume of Charles Moore’s ‘authorised’ biography of Margaret Thatcher appeared. Now it’s the turn of Jonathan Aitken’s Margaret Thatcher: Power and Personality. Aitken’s fond of these plosive alliterative titles: his back catalogue includes Pride and Perjury and Porridge and Passion.

An alumnus of Eton and Belmarsh – withstanding the rigours of the one doubtless good prep for the other – Aitken went down for perjury and perverting the course of justice in 1999, having lied when suing the Guardian for libel. Earlier in the 1990s, during the Matrix Churchill case, it transpired that as defence procurement secretary he’d signed public interest immunity forms to bury documents relating to the sale of arms to Iraq by BMARC when he’d been one of the company’s directors. When the perjury conviction came in, the Guardian unsurprisingly wanted the £1.5 million it had paid in the libel suit back, whereupon Aitken was declared bankrupt: most of his possessions had been given to ‘friends’. He’s fallen on his feet, though, and now lives in a mansion crashpad in London with his second wife and a couple of servants who, according to the Daily Mail, call him ‘sir’.

While banged up, Aitken, like many people with time to spare, found Jesus. Since release, by various Christian endeavours, he’s been repaying his debt to society – though one might have thought he’d already amassed a fair bit of credit via one of his pre-penitential lives as Carol Thatcher’s boyfriend. The idea of paying social visits to the Thatcher household as a prospective son-in-law sounds about as enticing as a night out with the Taliban, but Aitken endured ‘the old bat’ (quoting her friend Sir Tim Bell) and her hobby-racist and oft-sozzled husband, as well as the incurably bungaloid Mark, who was later to get lost in the Sahara and make himself a name as a failed coup-plotter in Equatorial Guinea.

Aitken's good on what passed for domestic life in the Thatcher ménage, with Carol prone to hissy fits and Mark throwing toddler tantrums. While Thatcher was PM her son cack-handedly tried to muscle in on the al-Yamamah arms deal with the Saudis, which Britain snatched from under the noses of the French. As Aitken says, Mark Thatcher’s subsequent denials of involvement in al-Yamamah ring true, if only because there was no ‘value he could possibly have added to any part of the project’. Thwarted, Mark threatened in a whining phone call with Dick Evans (then head of British Aerospace and one of Denis’s golf chums, who was brokering the deal with the Saudis) to fling himself from the balcony of the hotel where he was staying. Denis, who was in the room when Evans took the call, said: ‘Tell him to jump.’

Aitken concurs with Moore that the Iron Lady was a bit of a ‘goer’ – the word used by her sometime friend and rival Edward du Cann, ex-chair of the 1922 Committee and the man who crashed Lonrho. She certainly works her way through several suitors before getting round to Denis. They fail for being variously posh but snobbish, rich but socially inept, or rich but thick; one is palmed off onto her sister Muriel. But then in about 1950 she meets the director of the Atlas Preservative Company, a paint and creosote firm, and falls for Denis’s paint pile and his souped-up Triumph ‘tart trap’. She unbosoms to Muriel that he is ‘not a very attractive creature’ who ‘has not got a very prepossessing personality’.

Aitken, despite his obvious besottment, takes a similar view of his heroine. Over 700-plus pages she is described as 'abnormal', 'petty', 'overindulgent' (to Mark), 'deplorable', 'hubristic', 'hysterical', 'embarrassing' and 'ursine', which is a bit hard on bears. Thatcher’s astounding amour-propre is a constant. Aged nine, she tells a teacher who congratulates her on winning a poetry recital competition that ‘I deserved it’; at her father’s funeral in Grantham, she moans to Muriel, ‘They don’t know how to treat a cabinet minister, do they?’ and is told: ‘This service isn’t about you’. As Aitken says, ‘the few knew perfectly well’ that Thatcher ‘showed remarkably little interest or sympathy for the deprived.’ One for whom Thatcher does show sympathy is the ex-con who comes to pay court on his release from Ford open prison.

Now that the old bat has winged her way off to Valhalla there will be a lot more hagio-balls. Ominously, Moore's biography has so far only reached 1982.