New documents reveal international ‘shock’ at Thatcher’s downfall

Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
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World leaders greeted the fall of Margaret Thatcher’s 11-year reign with a wave of shock and disbelief in a testament to the close relations she fostered with other nations during her tenure as Prime Minister.

Newly released government files show how in November 1990 presidents and prime ministers around the globe could scarcely credit the way she had been forced out by an internal Conservative Party coup.

The papers, released by the National Archives in Kew, west London, include a remarkable outpouring of tributes and commiserations from those she had clashed with as well as her close allies.

They also disclose the raw anger among her inner circle at the way she had been treated by those she had led so successfully for so long.

Among the first to respond was former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who telephoned Charles Powell, her trusted foreign affairs adviser, in a “very emotional state” on learning the news.

In a note to Mrs Thatcher recounting their conversation, Mr Powell said the American had told him: “It was worse than a death in the family.

“You were one of the great figures of modern times and nobody outside Britain - indeed nobody outside Westminster - could understand how your fellow Conservatives could have done this.”

French president Francois Mitterrand, with whom she had an at times difficult relationship, said that while their views had sometimes differed, “often we have reached similar conclusions”.

“With your tremendous conviction and uncommon will, you have put your stamp on an important moment in the history of your country and of Europe,” he informed her.

The most remarkable message came, however, from Moscow and Mikhail Gorbachev - the reformist Soviet leader who Mrs Thatcher had famously said she could “do business with”.

In what Mr Powell described as an “unusually warm and friendly” letter, the Russian – addressing her for the first time in their correspondence as “Margaret” – expressed his appreciation for the “mutual understanding” they had established.

“In handing it over, the Soviet ambassador said there had been consternation in Moscow at the turn of events leading to the prime minister’s resignation,” Mr Powell noted.

“Gorbachev had sent (foreign minister Eduard) Shevardnaze out of a high-level meeting at the Kremlin to telephone him, to find out what an earth was going on and how such a thing could be conceivable.

“The ambassador said he had indeed found it very hard to explain. Indeed, there was a certain irony.

“Five years ago they had party coups in the Soviet Union and elections in Britain. Now it seemed to be the other way round.”

Mr Powell could not hide his own views. Responding to a message from US national security adviser General Brent Scowcroft, he said: “What happened was a devastating blow and a sad commentary on standards of loyalty in politics.”

Following Mrs Thatcher’s tear-stained departure from Downing Street, Conservative Party chairman Kenneth Baker organised a whip-round among the remaining Cabinet members, collecting enough to buy her a pair of silver candlesticks.

It was decided the presentation should be made in the Lord Chancellor’s lodgings as this would be “both less painful for her and also attract less publicity than an event for this purpose in No 10”.