“A Remarkable Prime Minister”

1979 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is surrounded by police as she walks through Preston with Robert Atkins MP
1979 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is surrounded by police as she walks through Preston with Robert Atkins MP
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Seldom have politicians been so keen to express their personal views as after the death of Baroness Thatcher.

The former Prime Minister divided opinion as much in death as she did in life during her reign at Number 10.

Preston’s Labour MP Mark Hendrick snubbed a Parliamentary recall last week, saying Lady Thatcher’s leadership had been a “traumatic time in the north”, and that he had seen her policies harm local government and industries while he was a Salford councillor.

Another former Preston MP has more favourable memories of the Iron Lady.

Sir Robert Atkins, of Garstang, became Conservative MP for Preston North in 1979, the year Lady Thatcher got the keys to Downing Street.

He can remember being given a clear brief by the leader on her expectations for the seat.

Sir Robert, now a North West MEP, said: “The seat ended up being the most marginal seat in the 1979 Parliament. It was a very tight fight.

“(Lady Thatcher) made it clear to me Preston was a very marginal seat and it was my task to ensure all viewpoints were recognised.

“It was the case then and increasingly now that the ethnic mix of Preston was wide and varied. I worked particularly hard among the Asian community and she was very supportive of that.”

Sir Robert, who also served as a South Ribble MP, went on to become a junior minister during Mrs Thatcher’s terms in office.

The first Thatcher administration introduced the controversial policy of privatising some large public sector companies, including British Aerospace from 1981.

Sir Robert said: “I became a minister in her government initially for aerospace then sport.

“One thing I had to deal with was British Aerospace and the privatisation of that and the desire to make sure the Government supported Tornado aircraft.

“I didn’t have a great deal to do with Mrs Thatcher on a day-to-day basis; I was a very junior minister and Prime Ministers normally don’t trouble themselves too much with junior ministers.

“But I did go cabinet once in place of my boss and watched her at the helm.

“Before I became a minister, I used to heckle quite a lot in the Commons as a bit of wit.

“On a couple of occasions, she wrote letters to me after interventions I had made to support her in Prime Minister’s Questions.”

Sir Robert said, if pushed, he would name the way Mrs Thatcher handled the Falklands crisis as her biggest achievement.

However, his most favourable recollection of the Iron Lady is closer to home.

Sir Robert said: “One thing I do remember is my daughter was diabetic, diagnosed from about the age of four.

“There was great concern at the time about whether diabetics would have free needles or not.

“I had dinner with Mrs Thatcher in the (Commons) dining room and I talked to her about this. As a direct result, she changed the policy, entirely after hearing about my experience as a parent.”

Sir Robert said: “It’s not the sort of thing she would have wished.

“She was a remarkable Prime Minister and a remarkable leader. I have strong and good memories of her achievements in the north of England and Preston area but there are others who have achieved as much in different ways.”