The Independent London Newspaper
23rd February 2017

ILLTYD HARRINGTON: 'Nice to see that the GLC can at least turn you out well' – a bearded Welshman, face to face with Cruella de Vil

    Illtyd Harrington and Margaret Thatcher

    Illtyd Harrington and Margaret Thatcher

    Published: 11 April, 2013

    THERE are moments when life really does imitate art. Take Mrs Thatcher’s 87th birthday. She came to the front door of her large Belgravia house propped up by her daughter Carol and the butler. She looked bewildered and was obviously anxious to get back indoors, head down.

    Suddenly she saw the cameras and immediately was electrified, energised, and transformed. The girl from the corner shop in the faceless town of Grantham was centre stage again.

    She reminded me of Norma Desmond at the end of Billy Wilder’s masterpiece Sunset Boulevard. The tired old silent movie star was being lured into the police van after shooting her young boyfriend: “All right, Mr De-Mille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

    The managers and fixers and interior decorators and exterior decorators moved in on Margaret. It was the story of Pygmalion – Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle all over again. The girl from the country became the matron of style. Regal, merciless.

    Her Who’s Who entry made no mention of her mother or sister. Alderman Roberts, the chairman of the finance committee of Grantham Borough Council, was her genetic regulator or server. 

    After her remodelling and redesigning like a new car she emerged, her speech at a lower pitch, her posture enhanced, her body language fluent sharp in the use of her sexuality, the queen of enticement and destruction.

    Twice on meeting her I maintained close eye contact although she did unnerve me. Shades of Lucrezia Borgia with sachets of poison in her ring.

    Her handlers policed her very well. 

    They were Airey Neave, a tall, handsome, man, ex-POW consorting daily with MI5 and MI6 and murdered by the IRA. Then there was Cecil Parkinson, a self-made man, a character from Room at The Top. His place was secure near the throne. 

    She was a flirt and once shocked a hardened Daily Express photographer by commenting about how firm her breasts were at 50.

    In 1984 it was my responsibility to join the greeting party for François Mitterrand, the Socialist president of France. M Mitterand wore his libido outside his trousers but his summation of Thatcher is rich: “Thatcher has the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.” We waited for the president’s arrival at a special room at Victoria station. 

    The Queen was chatting to us informally when Thatcher advanced and genuflected rather than curtsied. Not to be outdone I offered the prime minister my red rose, then an acceptable Labour Party symbol. She shrank back, almost shrivelled, and shrilled: “I can’t possibly accept that!” It seemed to me that I was holding a crucifix before a vampire. Those eyes narrowed as if she wished to turn me to stone. 

    To the dismay of all parties in local government she set about ripping it apart. Particularly the Greater London Council. One fateful afternoon I was told that Patrick Jenkin, the environment secretary, wished to see me at Thatcher’s request. She refused to see the GLC leader Ken Livingstone. He gave me the death notice of the GLC and the Inner London Education Authority. I returned to County Hall the herald of doom.

    Bouncing back, I put on my chain of office and marched to No 10 with a bunch of daisies. Daisy is the Victorian version of the name Margaret.

     “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do.” 

    Two hours later her answer came. I can hear her now. It was a gracious thank you for “those lovely flowers”, then the tone changed into a harsh and repellent scream and “No, absolute no. I cannot abandon the millions of voters who wanted me to do these things.”

    Shortly afterwards I was entertaining guests in the Royal Festival Hall concert. We had been delayed without explanation. The house manager, in a state of high anxiety, said: ”We are waiting for the prime minister.” 

    This was at the height of our conflict with Number 10. Suddenly she arrived, she apologised. Afterwards I invited her to a small reception. She was puzzled by my benevolence and synthetic charm. At the end I escorted her to the rear entrance. The head security man told me that they were under red alert for a possible assassination attempt.

    Foolhardily I marched on and gently asked her to give me back a glass, embossed with “GLC” that she was clutching. I said: “Mine until the abolition, prime minister, then it’s all yours.” Suddenly she looked like a middle-class kleptomaniac caught leaving Harrods.

    Five years later I was in the municipal museum in Venice. Refusing to walk any further, I summoned a rickety old lift. The grille opened and there she was for all the world like an irritated housewife at Brent Cross. 

    “It’s full,” she said autocratically and up she went. I waited and pressed the bell. The cage came back and a very irritated Mrs Thatcher snarled from behind clenched teeth. “Not you again.” Later I met one of her protection squad who told me that in the lift she had said: “Is that that awful bearded Welshman from the GLC?”

    I felt my day had not been in vain.

    We met again after the Cenotaph Armistice Day at a reception in the Home Office. I was for once sartorially impeccable. She looked me up and down like the school matron. “Nice to see that the GLC can at least turn you out well.” 

    I blushed in shame at her approval. 

    After she arrived in Downing Street in 1979, she assembled the Praetorian Guard, right-wing monetarists, off-the-wall economists, and several obsequious journalists. Somehow or other I was later invited to the Conservative Political Centre to mark the death of one of the latter. Thatcher that night was playing the role of the lady of the manor at the village fair. 

    She advanced down the line giving approval and then we came face-to-face. Her eyes morphed into laser beams. My reaction was to put up an impenetrable screen. After two minutes of visual confrontation she gave up, muttering. “That’s that”. 

    It was our gunfight at the OK Corral. I wounded her with my left eye.

    I was a friend of one of her closest confidants who tried to convince me that she was another St Teresa of Avila. To me she was Cruella De Vil. 

    Who could forget her boldly visiting Augusto Pinochet, who had been arrested on an international warrant, a bloodstained tyrant who apparently took part in the torture sessions himself?

    At her most outrageous, when she thought she was invulnerable, she refused to criticise Apartheid and referred to the imprisoned Nelson Mandela as a terrorist.

    She allowed us at the request of America to live in jeopardy by permitting Cruise missiles on Greenham Common.

    I spotted her once or twice with a large prayer book going to church. Her conversion might have annoyed her Methodist father but she could not hide her real persona. She was the apostle of greed and unaware of the Christian tenets in the Sermon on the Mount.

    “I will have medical attention when I want, where I want it and how I want it.” 

    Did anyone ever see her in a crowded A&E?

    I never saw her on the Underground.

    She, surprisingly, could tell a story against herself in her moments of relaxation. One day when visiting an old people’s homes she spotted one of the denizens dozing in a chair. “Do you know who I am?” The old girl looked at her in a quizzical mood and answered: “No dear, but if you ask the warden she’ll tell you.”

    She never forgave me for alleging that her holiday in Switzerland was a cover for having her face lifted. Nasty I know, but she could be nastier. Don’t cry for her. She wouldn’t for you.