Obituary: Margaret Thatcher - Leader who transformed Britain

Monday 08 April 2013 19.36
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The grocer's daughter from Lincolnshire was British prime minister for over 11 years
The grocer's daughter from Lincolnshire was British prime minister for over 11 years
Floral tribute left outside the residence of Baroness Thatcher in Chester Square
Floral tribute left outside the residence of Baroness Thatcher in Chester Square
Mikhail Gorbachev shakes hands with Mrs Thatcher at Chequers in 1984
Mikhail Gorbachev shakes hands with Mrs Thatcher at Chequers in 1984
Chile's former dictator Gen Augusto Pinochet and his wife being visited by Margaret Thatcher at their temporary residence while under house arrest at in Surrey in 1999
Chile's former dictator Gen Augusto Pinochet and his wife being visited by Margaret Thatcher at their temporary residence while under house arrest at in Surrey in 1999
Demonstration against the Poll Tax, which later became a riot known as the 'Battle of Trafalgar' in London on 31 March 1990
Demonstration against the Poll Tax, which later became a riot known as the 'Battle of Trafalgar' in London on 31 March 1990
Mrs Thatcher blows out the candles on her birthday cake at a celebration marking her 70th birthday in Washington in 1995
Mrs Thatcher blows out the candles on her birthday cake at a celebration marking her 70th birthday in Washington in 1995
Margaret Thatcher greets the crowds in Downing Street at the start of her third term in office in 1987
Margaret Thatcher greets the crowds in Downing Street at the start of her third term in office in 1987
Margaret Thatcher, with Geoffrey Howe, Keith Joseph, John Nott, Norman Tebbit on the Conservative front bench in the House of Commons in 1981
Margaret Thatcher, with Geoffrey Howe, Keith Joseph, John Nott, Norman Tebbit on the Conservative front bench in the House of Commons in 1981

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has died aged 87.

BaronessThatcher was the longest-serving British prime minister in the 20th century and the only woman to have ever held the post.

The grocer’s daughter from Lincolnshire was prime minister for 11-and-a-half years and the first leader to win three general elections in a row.

She resigned in November 1990 after a year in which her fortunes plummeted.

It was a year in which she faced a series of damaging resignations from the cabinet, her own political judgments were publicly denounced by her own colleagues, catastrophic by-election humiliations, internal party strife, and a sense in the country that people had had enough of her.

But history will almost certainly proclaim her as one of the greatest British peacetime leaders.

Having succeeded Edward Heath as Conservative Party leader she defeated Labour's James Callaghan in 1979 - with a 43-seat majority.

Her triumphant achievement of power signalled the end of the era when trade union leaders trooped in and out of 10 Downing Street, haggling and bargaining with her Labour predecessors.

Instead she stripped the unions of many of their powers with the aim of transferring them to managements and individual consumers.

Her economic policies amid rising unemployment also made her increasingly unpopular at home - but she refused to back down.

Veteran left winger Tony Benn frequently held her up as an example of how a great political party should be led, comparing her with what he regarded as Neil Kinnock's fudged leadership of the Labour Party.

Margaret Hilda Roberts was born in 1925 in the Lincolnshire town of Grantham.

She had the virtues of thrift, hard work, morality and patriotism drilled into her by her beloved father Alderman Alfred Roberts, who ran two grocers' shops and a post-office, and became mayor of the town in 1943.

Mrs Thatcher launched into her battle to get into Parliament by unsuccessfully fighting Dartford - where she met her husband Denis - in 1950 and again in 1951.

She finally entered the Commons in 1959 as Member for Finchley, a seat she represented throughout her career as an MP.

In the final years of the Harold Macmillan-Alec Douglas-Home administrations, Mrs Thatcher was parliamentary secretary, Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance.

Later, Mr Heath, the man she was destined to topple from the Tory leadership, took her into his shadow cabinet in 1966, but not without what turned out to be fateful reservations.

He observed uncannily: "Once she's there, we'll never be able to get rid of her."

In 1975, she became the first woman at the helm of the Conservative Party, hell-bent on seeing the Tories back in power.

Her principal lieutenant in that leadership election campaign was Airey Neave, who was assassinated by the IRA in March, 1979, only months before she came to power.

She was shattered by the news, but his death served only to increase her resolution to crush terrorism, to offer terrorists no quarter, to do no deals with them.

In 1979, Mrs Thatcher, then aged 53, was stepping into Downing Street, softly quoting from memory the prayer of St Francis of Assisi: "Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. Where there is despair, may we bring hope."

In 1982, she sent a naval task force to retake the Falkland Islands from Argentina.

The controversial sinking of the Argentinian cruiser, the General Belgrano, caused former Taoiseach Charles Haughey to withdraw Irish support for EU sanctions against Argentina.

The row irreparably damaged relations between the two.

However, the Falklands victory led to election victory in 1983 with an increased majority.

The following year, the IRA bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the Conservative Party Conference.

Mrs Thatcher was nearly killed but insisted that the conference continue.

During the miners' strike, Mrs Thatcher took on Britain's most powerful trade union - and won. She privatised state industries, like British Telecom and British Gas.

The H-Block hunger strikes in Northern Ireland were also an early test of her political toughness.

She inflamed Irish nationalist opinion North and South following the report of the New Ireland Forum.

But conciliatory moves from former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald persuaded her to sign the ground breaking Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.

Her relationship with former US President Ronald Reagan and her efforts to do business with Russa's then leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, helped end the Cold War.

Britain was booming by the time she won a third election victory in 1987.

But the poll tax riots marked the beginning of the end of her premiership and she became increasingly isolated among her EU partners.

Chancellor Nigel Lawson left government over British entry to the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. And Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe resigned - accusing her of being autocratic.

Michael Hesseltine's bid for the leadership forced her from Downing Street. But it was to be John Major who succeeded her.

However, her support for Mr Major was lukewarm. She was to say later that she backed him because he was "the best of a poor bunch".

She marked her decision to quit with the historic expression: "It's a funny old world" - pointing out that she had been summarily removed from power even though she had won every election she had fought.

There were tears visible in her eyes as she was driven away from Downing Street for the last time after 11 years as prime minister to hand in her seals of office to the Queen.

Yet the Iron Lady - a title bestowed upon her by her enemies in Moscow, which, incidentally she relished - was not all stern, steely and strident.

She was delightful with children and she could not disguise her glee - "We are a grandmother" - when her grandson Michael was born in Dallas in February, 1989.

She regularly and touchingly admitted that she could not do her job properly without the unfailing and unstinting support of her "marvellous" husband, Denis.

After leaving Downing Street, Mrs Thatcher continued to cast a long shadow over British politics.

However, her health declined after Denis’ death.

He was, she said, the "golden thread" running through her life.

She had suffered a series of strokes and her doctors had forbidden her to make any more speeches - instructions which she was occasionally known to breach.

In February 2007, Baroness Thatcher became the first ex-prime minister in British history to have a statue of herself unveiled in the House of Commons while she was still alive.

To her enemies - Margaret Thatcher divided Britain.

To her admirers - she transformed it.