Mrs T the temptress - and a woman who knew all about the seductive powers of politics and wasn't afraid to use them

By Edwina Currie
Last updated at 4:43 PM on 06th June 2008

A controversial new film about the young Margaret Thatcher's ten-year struggle to become an MP is to be screened next week. It tells how her attempts to break into a world dominated by male MPs were rebuffed time and again. But she refused to give up and ruthlessly used her womanly wiles to win through.

The film's writer, Tony Saint, says Margaret Thatcher - The Long Walk To Finchley is simply how he imagines things might have been. But one former colleague says it's absolutely spot on. But former colleague Edwina Currie says it's absolutely spot on...

Within the tea-rooms and bars around Westminster, there was often just one subject of conversation that would excite MPs of all parties: Margaret Thatcher. It wasn't her policies or her politics that got them going.

Oh no. From the moment she came into Parliament in 1959 at the age of 33, she had been seen as an object of their sexual curiosity, and, it has to be said, their fantasy.

Grown men who should have known better speculated about what it might be like to have sex with her. There was much discussion about the type of underwear she might have worn. Sensible voluminous cotton modesty-protectors? Wispy silken threads? Or none at all?

The ever-priapic Alan Clark - who was once caught on camera gazing lustily at her derriere - would wonder out loud whether she was wearing stockings and suspenders (he liked to believe she did) and a lot of other politicians, some of them the holders of very high office indeed, would join in the debate.

The men found her excitingly formidable for all sorts of reasons. She was their fantasy teacher. They longed to have her spank them. She was both Florence Nightingale, come to rescue them in times of trouble, and Joan of Arc, battling against dragons.

What she wasn't was a real flesh-and-blood person. Other women in the Commons - and that included many hundreds who worked as secretaries, researchers and librarians - were fair game for the men. They could be flirted with, courted and teased. Some were even marriage material - Nigel Lawson wed a librarian and Norman Fowler a researcher, for example.

But no man, without exception, would dare to take Margaret on, even when she was a young, fresh, and breathless newcomer. They preferred to fantasise at a distance. It wasn't because she was already married to Denis, but because she was unique, special - and focused. Everyone knew it.

I was vividly reminded of her tunnel vision in the first few minutes of Margaret Thatcher - The Long Walk To Finchley.

A personnel officer for a chemical company has just hired Margaret - superbly portrayed by Andrea Riseborough - and asks what her outside interests are so she can be linked up with like-minded employees. Aged 23 and just out of Oxford University, Margaret is bemused.

'Choral singing, perhaps,' suggests the woman, 'or needlework?' Eventually a stumped Margaret manages an answer. 'Politics,' she says, with more than a note of apology in her voice.


Fantasy: Male MPs kept their distance from unique Margaret

And that's all that Margaret is interested in, as the film makes clear and as I know from my own experience of her.

Margaret gets it right - as in real life - by taking on a steady job to fund her political ambitions. You need a salary from a boring job that is not emotionally or physically demanding - you save all your energy for the politics.

In her case, she is shown testing ice cream, but apparently in truth she was hired to test cake mixes for the J. Lyons tea shop chain. How boring is that?
The idealistic Margaret sets out thinking that all she has to do to get adopted for a seat and then get elected is to offer liberal helpings of common sense for every problem.

But Britain in the 1950s was run by returning war heroes and an old school tie network. Politics was seen as men's work. As one lady constituency selector tells Margaret: 'A woman's place is in the home, not in the House.'

Standing in the solidly Labour constituency of Dartford, Kent, she wangles her way into working men's clubs, where women are banned, and busies herself pulling pints. 'Remember,' she shrills to astonished drinkers, 'a Conservative government will be a tax-cutting government.'

he gets little help from neighbouring constituencies, although being only 23 and attractive, she gets a lot of attention. The jealous Tory candidate for Bexley, a young Ted Heath (gloriously played by Sam West), can't stand her but grudgingly concedes to Orpington's MP, Sir Waldron Smithers (Michael Cochrane), that 'there is something about her'.

'Yes,' replies Smithers, taking a swig of whisky. 'The whiff of cheap perfume.' (I don't remember Margaret ever wearing any perfume - but if she did, it would never have been cheap).

What the film doesn't get quite right is that she was never as gawky and gauche as Andrea Riseborough makes out. In fact, she was well brought up with many social graces and had learned the politician's trick of remembering everyone's name and face early in her career.

Heath gets in and it quickly becomes clear that he is a rising star in Parliament, so Margaret tries to get him on her side. At a constituency ball, she takes him outside for a chat.

'With men like you thrusting,' she tells a startled Heath, 'a Conservative government can't be far away.' All she wanted was help and advice, but Ted was never comfortable in the company of women.

Indeed, there is speculation in the film - just as there used to be in the tea rooms - that he was uninterested in the opposite sex.

'He is very close to his mother, you know,' says one character meaningfully. He may have misinterpreted Margaret's attempt at getting him on her side and thought she was propositioning him. But she only wanted him to help her in the way she had helped him win Bexley, although her language is seductive.

'Do you find it in your heart to take a young girl by the hand and guide her into Parliament?' she whispers. 'Take me with you on your journey to power.'

Heath is insulted that she is implying he owes the seat to her. 'We shall never speak of this again,' he mutters pompously. Later, as a Whip, he is asked to sabotage her selection prospects.

The lady turns heads: Denis and Margaret Thatcher on their wedding day in 1951

In the meantime, being a man, having a family, wearing an old school tie and a row of medals across your chest got you everywhere. I know how true this is because I came up against it myself.

Nearly 25 years later, I studied Margaret's problems and tried to learn from her experience when I stood for Parliament. When I was hoping to be chosen for Shrewsbury in Shropshire, another candidate turned up wearing his Territorial Army uniform and accompanied by his pregnant wife. Guess who was selected.

But all these years later, his family rebounded on him - for this was Derek Conway, who found himself in deep trouble for employing his wife and sons on non-jobs at taxpayers' expense.

Margaret tries other no-hope seats, but still gets nowhere. 'Damn the Establishment,' she fumes. By now she has met Denis (played by Rory Kinnear). Divorced, rich and eternally cheerful, he clearly adores her - as Denis was, and did, in real life.

As a condition of accepting his stammered marriage proposal, she makes him promise he will never try to deflect her from her ambition.
The film glosses over their wedding. Denis asks her father, the formidable Alderman Roberts, (Philip Jackson) for her hand, and is sternly told that it's up to Margaret.

But the truth, I understand, is that he didn't approve of Denis because he was divorced and, perhaps worse, liked a drink. It is said that Margaret's parents didn't go to the wedding.

After her father died, a friend who visited the Roberts' home in Grantham, Lincolnshire, reported that there were no pictures of Margaret and Denis together, or of their children. The last picture of their daughter on display was at her graduation from Oxford.

On honeymoon in France, we are given another glimpse into Margaret's focus. When their lovemaking finishes, Denis rolls over and Margaret promptly switches on the light and resumes her studies. When she gives birth to twins, Mark and Carol, she tells Denis that they now have the perfect family, a boy and a girl - 'so there's no need to go through all that again'.

Denis looks stunned. 'What, never?' he asks forlornly. He tells the babies: 'Congratulations, you've just made your mother very happy.'

What was Margaret like as a wife and mother? The film shows her baking, knitting and snipping recipes out of the paper, but the children are a distraction from Margaret's all-consuming goals.

Was that so in real life? A former neighbour once said that whenever Margaret went out, leaving the children with their nanny, she would stride down the road without so much as a backward glance.

Denis on the other hand, would frantically wave at his children in the window the moment the front door shut behind him. In the film, Denis is away in Africa a lot on business. This is only a problem for Margaret if the family-minded constituency selectors insist on meeting her husband before they make their mind up.

'Mummy, can I go to South Africa one day, like Daddy?' asks Mark with foresight. 'I promise I won't get into trouble.'

Eventually, after being turned down in Beckenham and Hemel Hempstead, Margaret asks Denis for advice. 'Your perceived weakness is that you are a woman,' he reminds her. 'But that can be your strength if you work on it.'
Margaret becomes consciously more feminine. She lightens her hair, modulates her voice from strident to low and sexy, wears tops that show a hint of cleavage and skirts that display a flash of leg.

The dramatic change in her is exactly how it was. You can trace that in the photographs of her at 18. She was serious and dowdy. There is nothing coquettish or fun-loving about her in those days.

She managed to sail through Oxford without a boyfriend, which took some doing, considering she was basically very pretty and surrounded by lusty young men. When I was there, after her, there were five women's colleges to 25 men's, so we had plenty of choice.

With Margaret discovering her new femininity, she visits the candidates' chairman at Conservative Central Office. Dressed to kill, she presents herself as a helpless woman being held back by men and tearfully enlists his help to get a seat.

This, I am convinced, is very close to the truth but we shall never know for sure because there were only two people in the room. One - the chairman - is now dead, and the other, Margaret, will never tell.

There are just two recorded times in her life when she has cried. The first when her son Mark got lost rally-driving in the Sahara; the other when she was ousted from No 10. But the tears work because the embarrassed chairman suggests she applies for the safe seat of Finchley in North London, where the incumbent, Sir John Crowder (Geoffrey Palmer) is retiring. Everyone does what they can to impede Margaret but she makes the shortlist as the token woman.

On the campaign trail: Margaret(Andrea Risborough) uses her charms

I should add here that in politics it is not just the chaps who are the enemy. Some wives deeply resent women MPs because they think we are after their husbands. Once or twice they are right, of course. The candidates' chairman advises her on getting through the final selection process. 'Wear a black suit with perhaps a little gold trim,' she is told. 'It suggests seriousness. Make sure your skirt is knee length, pin a brooch to your lapel and wear a hat set back so your face is not in shadow.'

That particular scene made me jump out of my skin because it mirrored my own experience. I was given exactly the same advice on the eve of the selection for South Derbyshire. It worked for me - I held the seat from 1983 to 1997. And as everyone now knows, it worked for Margaret in Finchley in 1959. The film ends here, with Margaret having achieved her ambition. But it was just the birth of the Iron Lady and a political career that would make her Britain's most outstanding and charismatic leader since Winston Churchill.
Within three years, her hair by now almost blonde, she was a junior minister, controversially taking free milk away from schoolchildren - although in the film she says if she ever gets to power she's going to make sure every child gets it.

Ted Heath's hatred of her became life long, although when he was prime minister he put her into his government as the token woman. She was also the brightest and best around. She had a good mind, a scientific background and she could add up, which most men couldn't.

I would like to say that Margaret's great struggle made it easier for women to get into Parliament, but I don't think it did. More than 20 years after she won her great battle I was encountering the same prejudices against women because old buffers still ran things.

On my first day in Parliament one of them asked me: 'So which MP are you working for, my dear?' Some things change, but in politics it seems they always stay the same. Margaret's allure was, if anything, enhanced during her time in power. U.S. president Ronald Reagan was smitten by her - 'Margaret and I have a special relationship,' he would say. He particularly loved it when she stood up to him, which he found sexy.

Russia's president Mikhail Gorbachev admitted he found her fascinating, while French president Francois Mitterrand described her as having 'the eyes of Caligula but the mouth of Marilyn Monroe'.

Half her Cabinet were probably secretly in love with her. The other half, along with all the tea room Lotharios, were deeply in lust. The only man she never won over was Ted Heath.

Margaret Thatcher - The Long Walk To Finchley is on BBC4 on Thursday, June 12 at 9pm.

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