Mount first encountered Thatcher when he was working at the Conservative Research Department in 1964. "She was then 39 years old and ... looked more like one of the over-age milkmaids in the chorus of the Bath panto than someone in training to be an Iron Lady, although you could not miss the willpower," he writes. "Her voice was sharper then than it later became, when she had had voice training to bring it down a semitone after criticisms that she sounded shrill. To me, anyway, she sounded unbearably sharp as she began to slice my papers into pitiful shreds."
Despite this unpromising beginning, in 1982 Mount was invited - thanks to the intercession of Thatcher's economics adviser, Alan Walters - to be head of the No 10 policy unit. When they met again, Thatcher instantly launched into a lecture, free-wheeling but powerful. "What we really have to address are the values of society," she told him. "This is my real task, to restore standards of conduct and responsibility. Otherwise we shall simply be employing more and more policemen on an increasingly hopeless task. Everyone has to be involved. At one time, women's magazines played quite a constructive role. Now they've just caved in. Personal responsibility is the key. That was what destroyed Greece and Rome - bread and circuses. It has to stop. Ferdy, it has to stop."
Mount was swept along on the tide of her conviction. Generally seen as a Tory "wet" (he is a cousin of David Cameron and endorses his "liberal Conservatism"), he says that in those confident early days of Thatcherism he shared many of her ideals: curbing trade union power, reducing the size of the state, encouraging enterprise, rebuilding the family. "I confess I found all this both startling and thrilling," he writes of her call to arms at that audience in Downing Street. "The naked zeal, the direct, unabashed appeal to morality, the sheer seriousness ... There was none of the weary, professional cynicism I was so used to and had myself become so weary of."
He was hooked, though in the book and in person he makes a distinction between Thatcher the politician and Thatcher the human being. "She was extremely good to work for, but horrible, especially to colleagues," he says. "She'd ring up nice John Biffen and give him a tremendous rocket for refusing to appear on the Today programme because he said it was too early in the morning. Or give Francis Pym a dressing-down for saying the Tories shouldn't have too big a majority. She was very brutal."
A "strange, tense, ruthless but deeply honourable and usually honest woman" is Mount's adroitly double-edged summing up of Thatcher in the book. "She remained heroic, intolerable often, vindictive, even poisonous sometimes, but always heroic. Equally, I never became fond of her. That insistent, harsh concentration could never become endearing. 'I'm not here to be nice,' she would say, which was just as well." After a year and a half, during which he had written the Conservatives' 1983 election manifesto (he of course dismisses it as "the dullest of all time"), Mount decided he'd had enough. "You needed to have this flat, clear, blinkered approach," he says. "It's not easy to live with that over a long period."
He admired Thatcher's zeal and tenacity, but recognised - or at least recognises now - that her cult of individualism damaged Britain. "Her startling success and her relentless personality had a long-term corroding effect on her party," he writes.
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