Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first and only woman Prime Minister, died this morning after suffering a stroke, it was announced today.
Baroness Thatcher, who was 87, won three general elections for the Conservatives and shaped UK politics for a generation. At home, she implemented sweeping reforms to trade unions, defeated the miners in a bitter strike and forced the Labour Party to modernize itself. Abroad, she was dubbed “the Iron Lady”, winning an unlikely war in the Falklands and helping to secure the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Lord Bell, her spokesman and former adviser, said: “It is with great sadness that Mark and Carol Thatcher announced that their mother Baroness Thatcher died peacefully following a stroke this morning.”
In a statement Downing Street said she will be given a special ceremonial funeral, similar to those accorded to the Queen Mother and Diana, the Princess of Wales. She had been in poor health for some months and was living at the Ritz Hotel in London so that she could be cared for more easily.
The service will be held at St Paul’s Cathedral with a “wide and diverse range of people and groups with connections to Lady Thatcher” being invited. The service will be followed by a private cremation.
The tributes were led by David Cameron, who returned early from a tour of European capitals . He said: “It was with great sadness that I learned of the death of Lady Thatcher. We have lost a great leader, a great Prime Minister and a great Briton.”
Even Lady Thatcher’s critics admitted that some of her economic reforms were needed. She came to power after the 1978-79 Winter of Discontent, a wave of strikes which left rubbish piling up in the streets and the dead unburied in some areas. She imposed spending cuts as well as labour market reforms, taking on critics dubbed “the wets”, the moderate Tory ministers she sacked from her own Cabinet. In 1981, she declared that: “The lady’s not for turning,” a phrase that may prove her epitaph and has made the party leaders who followed her reluctant to make U-turns on policy.
Lady Thatcher, known as “Maggie,” won popular backing way beyond the Conservatives’ natural supporters. Even doubters acknowledged she showed strong leadership. But she was also seen as a leader who divided the nation because of the harsh measures she took on the economy. Critics blamed her for writing off huge sections of Britain’s manufacturing industry and allowing unemployment to rise to three million.
Her influence over British politics continued long after her emotional, tearful departure from Downing Street. She clashed with Cabinet colleagues including Lord (Geoffrey) Howe and Lord (Nigel) Lawson on Europe and their resignations played a part in her downfall. But her Eurosceptic views shifted her party’s centre of gravity to a sceptical position on the issue. The 140 new Tory MPs who entered the Commons for the first time in 2010 were dubbed “Thatcher’s children.”
Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, said: “Margaret Thatcher was one of the defining figures in modern British politics. Whatever side of the political debate you stand on, no one can deny that as Prime Minister she left a unique and lasting imprint on the country she served. She may have divided opinion during her time in politics but everyone will be united today in acknowledging the strength of her personality and the radicalism of her politics. My thoughts are with her family and friends.”
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, said of Lady Thatcher: “She will be remembered as a unique figure. She reshaped the politics of a whole generation. She was Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. She moved the centre ground of British politics and was a huge figure on the world stage. The Labour Party disagreed with much of what she did and she will always remain a controversial figure. But we can disagree and also greatly respect her political achievements and her personal strength.
“She also defined the politics of the 1980s. David Cameron, Nick Clegg and I all grew up in a politics shaped by Lady Thatcher. We took different paths but with her as the crucial figure of that era. She coped with her final, difficult years with dignity and courage. Critics and supporters will remember her in her prime.”
Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister, described Lady Thatcher as “a towering political figure”. He said: “Very few leaders get to change not only the political landscape of their country but of the world. Margaret was such a leader. Her global impact was vast. And some of the changes she made in Britain were, in certain respects at least, retained by the 1997 Labour Government, and came to be implemented by governments around the world.”
Gordon Brown, who invited Lady Thatcher to Downing Street and Chequers while he was Prime Minister, said: “She will be remembered not only for being Britain’s first female Prime Minister and holding the office for 11 years, but also for the determination and resilience with which she carried out all her duties throughout her public life. Even those who disagreed with her never doubted the strength of her convictions and her unwavering belief in Britain’s destiny in the world.”