When the lady “not for turning”, turned

Margaret Thatcher

The news of the death of Britain’s Iron Lady, Baroness Thatcher, prompted me to recall my favourite story about her. In 1980, in the first of her three terms as prime minister, she said in a speech to her Conservative Party’s Conference: “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.” Because I was personally engaged with her at the time, I know that she performed her first U turn in her first 48 hours of being prime minister.

I had visited the exiled Shah of Iran and Queen Farah in Morocco. When I met with Farah she was alone and I could see she had been crying. I put a gentle arm around her shoulder and asked her what was wrong. (My relationship with Farah was very special because I had assisted her efforts to educate her husband about what was going wrong in Iran before the revolution). There was a handwritten letter on her desk. She picked it up. “This is not helpful,” she said.

“Who is it from?” I asked.

“Ashraf”, she replied. (Princess Ashraf, the Shah’s twin sister, was safe and secure in America with her billions).

“What does it say?” I asked.

Farah read from the letter. “You bitch. You and your leftwing ideas are to blame for what has happened.”

But that insult was not the cause of Farah’s tears. She went on to tell me that King Hassan had called on them earlier in the day. (I knew that because he was taking his leave of them when I arrived. I thought he was embarrassed and very uncomfortable). He told them he was under great pressure and had to ask them to leave Morocco.

“We have nowhere to go,” Farah said.

I told her that I knew Jack Lynch, the prime minister of Ireland, very well. I proposed that I should call him and she agreed.

I got through to him without delay and went straight to the point. The Shah and Farah needed a temporary place of refuge. Ireland would be ideal, I suggested. Could he consider it? Jack’s response was also straight to the point. “No!”

Farah then told me that her husband had an estate in Surrey. I said I would return to the UK, take a look at it, and if keeping the place safe would not impose too much of a burden on our security services, I would ask Prime Minister Jim Callaghan if he would allow the Shah, Farah and their children to have temporary refuge there.

My exchange with Prime Minister Callaghan at Number 10 Downing Street was very brief. He said: “No way. The party would not allow it.”

Britain was four weeks away from a general election and few if any commentators doubted that the Labour Party would be defeated and Margaret Thatcher would become Britain’s first woman prime minister. I telephoned her and said that I had something important I needed to discuss with her in private. She said she would receive me on Sunday morning at Scotney Castle, her country home. (It was only about 40 minutes drive from where I then lived in Kent).

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