In an exclusive interview with PinkNews.co.uk, Conservative MP Conor Burns lifts the lid on his extraordinary friendship with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and says it’s wrong to believe she had homophobic views.
Speaking to PinkNews.co.uk in the hustle and bustle of the tearooms at the Houses of Parliament, Bournemouth West MP Conor Burns says: “I first met Lady Thatcher during my first year of university in Southampton. It was 1992 and she came down to campaign for Chris Chope, who was then a junior minister in John Major’s government, he had previously been the Thatcherite, trailblazing leader of Wandsworth Council.
“I then got to know her properly some years later when I drove Sir Denis Thatcher to a golf day in Dorset, we got back earlier than expected, and I said to him ‘what would Lady Thatcher be doing tonight?’ and he said ‘well the boss will be at home, why don’t you come in and meet her?’ And I was absolutely petrified, but I went in and met her.”
The moment he met his political heroine for the first time is something Conor will never forget. “It was massively intimidating”, he says. “Margaret Thatcher is one of these people who carried a sort of force field around with her she was incredibly charismatic and exuded power. When I was growing up in the 80s she was at the height of her powers then and the country was equally enthralled to her and petrified of her.
“So to walk into her living room and then to have her fussing around offering to make Denis and I an omelette, going down and fetching crisps and nuts, making us gin and tonics in her stocking bare feet was an unusual experience.”
Before getting elected as the MP for Bournemouth West in May 2010, Conor stood twice as the Conservative candidate for Eastleigh, only to be beaten by the now disgraced former Liberal Democrat MP Chris Huhne in 2005. As both a friend and mentor Lady Thatcher played a key role in helping Conor to get into Parliament.
“She did”, he says. “We used to joke about this in her later years that she had to be very careful accepting an invitation off me because it often ended up being the last one she ever did. She came down to Eastleigh to support me in 2001; she came to my home for lunch and we went to a supermarket and also visited a health club.
“It was very funny at the health club because she announced to the chief executive of the entire group ‘these places are a complete waste of time, up and down stairs keeps me fit’.”
Conor mimics Lady Thatcher’s instantly recognisable voice and says: “She then went over to a very large lady who was on a rowing machine and bent down and said ‘how much would you lose dear two pounds?’ the women replied ‘only 150 calories’, at which point Lady Thatcher horrified her by saying “well you better keep going then!”
The interview then takes a sombre tone as Conor mentions the declining years’ of Lady Thatcher’s health. “She did what turned out to be her last ever constituency speech in November 2002 which was many months after she had announced that she was never going to speak in public again – but insisted that she was going to speak for me.
“This was followed by one of her last campaign trips in 2005, and finally she then did what turned out to be the last ever dinner she had outside her home or the Ritz for me. It was a campaign and fundraising dinner in the Carlton Club in January 2010.”
Attention then moves to the thing which sustained Lady Thatcher throughout her life: politics.
“Margaret only ever had two issues that she was interested in: one was politics and the other was ladies fashion,” Connor adds: “I know nothing about ladies fashion so we tended to stay with politics. She was one of these people who were far more interested in the future than in the past.
“One of the last times I saw her, when she was a little bit confused as to where she was, she said to me ‘this is a marvellous room isn’t it they keep it so well’ – it was her living room – and I replied ‘yes, and all of your memories are here, picture of Number 10, Chequers, and that beautiful silver bowl the 1922 Committee gave you on your tenth anniversary of becoming Prime Minister – when you look round here you must think ‘not bad, not bad at all’.”
With another uncanny impression of Lady Thatcher’s voice, Conor says she replied: “Well I do sometimes but as my father always said ‘it’s not what you’ve done that counts it’s what you are going to do next’.”
He adds: “Even in the final year of her life she was always interested by what was going on here at Westminster, what the gossip was, what the government was up to – where they were getting it wrong – and how she would do things differently.”
But while her passion for politics remained with her until the end, by the time David Cameron had become Prime Minister in May 2010, Lady Thatcher was no longer following the day-to-day running of government in close detail.
“I am going to be honest with you Scott by the time David had become Prime Minister, Margaret was no longer following day-to-day politics that closely,” Conor says before stressing: “And we were very protective towards her so we sometimes wouldn’t tell her things if we thought they would annoy her because there was nothing she could do about them. If David did something that we thought she would approve of we would tell her.
“So I told her for example when the Prime Minister vetoed the EU Treaty – oh she was thrilled with that.”
Highlighting some of Lady Thatcher’s concerns about changes made within the Conservative Party in the past decade, Conor says: “She was very concerned, certainly when I was trying to get selected, when the party was very much promoting women candidates, ethnic minority candidates, a broader base of candidates, she was very concerned to protect some of her friends who were white, middle class and had a history of involvement with the Conservative Party.”
And this brings us neatly to the crux subject of sexuality. In death Lady Thatcher continues to polarise opinion, and for many in the LGBT community her administration’s decision to approve Section 28 of the Local Government Act in 1988, means she will forever be seen as a pariah.
Section 28 stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” and that schools “could not promote of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.
It was very much a product of the political war of the Left and Right, which saw battles played out with never before seen vitriol in Britain between left-wing councils and central government; this was a war that supporters of Thatcherism were determined to win at every possible turn.
But did the policy, along with a much-analysed line in her 1987 Conservative Party Conference speech where she denounced local education authorities for teaching children that “they have an inalienable right to be gay” mean that Lady Thatcher herself had homophobic views?
“No, I think she was a woman of her generation,” Conor Burns says. “She had a number of people, who you could identify by reading stuff about her, very close to her who were openly gay. She had no problem with that. The Section 28 stuff has taken a somewhat mythical status. Section 28 was a backbench amendment to a Local Government Bill. This was not something that was hatched in the flat of Number 10 when she was making Denis his bacon and eggs in the morning.”
Section 28 was introduced by the then Conservative backbencher Jill Knight, now a member of the House of Lords. The 90-year-old peer has recently resurfaced into the news following her criticism of the same-sex marriage bill, and her strange attempts at justifying her opposition by making platitudes, such as suggesting gay people are good with “antiques”.
Conor says as Prime Minister, Lady Thatcher accepted Section 28, but he cites the vociferous political climate of the time as a reason for her doing so.
“She accepted it. When you go and look back at some of the stuff that local authorities were doing then – the ‘Jennie lives with Eric and Martin’ books – which were aimed at five-and-six-year-olds, there is a question as to whether that is an appropriate age to introduce any aspect of sexuality and sex. And for someone born in the northern town of Grantham in the 1920s she would have just thought passionately that it wasn’t.”
When asked if Lady Thatcher knew of him being gay, the MP replies: “Oh yeah…the thing that people don’t know about Lady T was that she was completely and utterly un-censorious. She was very naïve about the issue of homosexuality as someone who was born in 1920s Grantham would have been. She was always very surprised to learn that people are gay.”
Conor adds that the former Conservative MP Matthew Parris “tells a great story of how she was always more surprised by the fact that he had jumped into the Thames to save a drowning dog, than the revelation he had slept with another man.”
Asked if Lady Thatcher ever queried him about his private life, Conor concludes by illustrating the former Prime Minister’s maternal side.
“It was never really talked about as I mentioned she talked politics… she did ask me after the 2005 election when I missed out to Chris Huhne by 568 votes if I had anybody with me – was I going to be ok – she was very motherly like that but she would no more of thought about asking someone about their private life than she would have flown to the moon.”