But she wasn’t always consistent. She claimed her hard-line stance had helped accelerate the end of the Cold War – and Gorbachev, in a tribute to her, agreed that she had helped end the four-decade East-West standoff. But she was the most reluctant of Europe’s leaders to support the reunification of Germany and to acknowledge the power that a united Germany was about to take on.
At home, her mastery of the briefs of domestic and foreign policies and her feisty manner made for a dazzling show in Parliament. Barry May, a former Reuters reporter who covered her at parliamentary question time, recalled it was “like being on the edge of a bear pit, where the great she-bear always wins.”
She had the reputation of being utterly humorless, but in the European Union, where she attempted to give Britain a unique role and to head off any move that would shed the political sovereignty of Parliament, she traded barbs with her fellow European leaders, who made no secret of their dislike for her.
In 1989, after NATO agreed on East-West negotiations to reduce the stock of U.S.-supplied short-range nuclear weapons, Thatcher declared she was “very, very satisfied” with the “very tight” conditions under which negotiations would open, and particularly that the Germans, “wriggle as they may, that is what they all signed up for.” German Chancellor Helmut Kohl called her “temperamental.”
“Mrs. Thatcher stood up for her interests in her temperamental way,” he said. “I supported mine. We have different temperaments. And she’s a woman, and I’m not.”
Peter Gregson, a fomer Reuters reporter who covered Thatcher for her final four years in office, recalled that at a meeting to discuss strengthening European central authority, French President Jacques Chirac charged Thatcher with putting her foot “firmly on the brake of Europe.” She shot back, “That’s rich, coming from him. He hasn’t even gotten in the car yet.”
Reporters who covered her recalled that she would sometimes put her personal touch on party and even travel arrangements. At No. 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s official residence in London, the Iron Lady “was as much in control of domestic matters as she was of the country’s politics,” recalled May, the former Reuters correspondent. He recalled a Christmas party where he saw Thatcher, clutching her handbag, “fussing over the curtains and ordering flunkies about,” and taking no rebuttals from anyone.
Thatcher also had the gift of a great politician to be able to completely ignore her own shaky base and to carry on regardless. She was in Aspen, Colo., on the day that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein sent his forces across the border into Kuwait. Bush, after holding early meetings on the crisis, flew to Colorado for a long-planned meeting.
There she told Bush that appeasement in the 1930s had led to World War II, and she warned that Saddam soon would have the Persian Gulf at his feet and 65 percent of the world’s oil supply with it, according to Thatcher’s memoirs. Her forceful delivery at a news conference, compared to Bush’s hesitations, left the impression that Thatcher had tried to strengthen his backbone.
All the while, Thatcher, who had seemingly lost interest in her country’s domestic affairs, was losing support among her own Conservative Party, which decided at a subsequent party conference to oust her as party leader. In November 1990, the party replaced her with John Major, a high school dropout whose calm demeanor, businesslike style and seeming lack of any ideology was a near-complete contrast.