Thatcher's Daughter Reveals Britain's Ex-Premier Has Dementia

Margaret Thatcher, prime minister from 1979 to 1990, appeared at the Royal Ascot horse races in June.
Margaret Thatcher, prime minister from 1979 to 1990, appeared at the Royal Ascot horse races in June. (By Chris Jackson -- Getty Images)
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By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 26, 2008

LONDON, Aug. 25 -- The daughter of Margaret Thatcher has disclosed that Britain's former prime minister is suffering from dementia, in the family's first public confirmation of what has been widely rumored in Britain for several years.

Thatcher's condition has deteriorated so much that she forgets that her husband, Denis Thatcher, died in 2003, her daughter reports in a memoir to be published next month, serialized over the weekend in the Mail on Sunday newspaper.

"I had to keep giving her the bad news over and over again," Carol Thatcher wrote. "Every time it finally sank in that she had lost her husband of more than 50 years, she'd look at me sadly and say 'Oh' as I struggled to compose myself. 'Were we all there?' she'd ask softly."

Carol Thatcher said she first noticed her mother's failing memory over lunch in 2000, a decade after she left 10 Downing Street. Margaret Thatcher was prime minister from 1979 to 1990.

"I almost fell off my chair," wrote Carol Thatcher, a journalist and television personality. "Watching her struggle with her words and her memory, I couldn't believe it. She was in her 75th year but I had always thought of her as ageless, timeless and 100 per cent cast-iron damage-proof. From the fateful day of our lunch, tell-tale signs that something wasn't quite right began to emerge."

Margaret Thatcher, now 82, earned a reputation as a bare-knuckled premier while leading Britain through severe labor upheavals at home and the 1982 war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. As Britain's only female prime minister, she allied with President Ronald Reagan in the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union.

Her Conservative Party ultimately tired of her stewardship and pressured her to resign in 1990. She largely retired from public view after a series of small strokes in 2002. The effects of Thatcher's failing condition could be seen in 2004 when she attended the state funeral in Washington for Reagan. Thatcher's eulogy for her old friend was presented by video and had been recorded months earlier.

In her book, "A Swim-On Part in the Goldfish Bowl: A Memoir," Carol Thatcher wrote that her mother still shows flashes of her old self, particularly about events from her time in office.

"Oh, how I wish I could do it all again," she quoted her mother as saying.

"When I invited a friend round to Mum's house for tea, he engaged her in conversation about Mikhail Gorbachev. Quick as a flash, she snapped back into Iron Lady mode and was utterly engaging," the book says. "It took us all time to realize that she couldn't remember a newspaper headline she had just read, or what she'd had for breakfast that morning."

Carol Thatcher wrote that her mother still on occasion reflexively reaches for the telephone when she sees major news on television, "before realizing it was now someone else's problem."

She said her mother's driver tries not to travel along Whitehall, the street that passes the entrance to the prime minister's office.

"He avoided driving up Whitehall because as their car passed Downing Street she would look up wondering why they hadn't turned in," the book says. "Then she would remember."

Charles Powell, Thatcher's former private secretary who still sees her regularly, said he also has seen Thatcher's memory problems.

"There is no doubt that while she still leads a very active life, she has difficulties with her memory," Powell said in an interview. "I imagine these are part of the effects of the small strokes she has suffered in recent years, but it doesn't stop her from taking a very active interest in the world."

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