The grocer’s daughter who bestrode the world stage

MARGARET Thatcher’s favourite quotation came from US preacher William JH Boetcker: “You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot help little men by tearing down big men. You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.”

It was this outlook that guided both her political approach and her personal life, enabling her to rise from a humble background and remake Britain.

Born Margaret Hilda Roberts on 13 October 1925, the second daughter of a Methodist midlands grocer and his dressmaking wife, she combined a grammar school education with work in the family shop. In 1938 her family took in a young Jewish girl fleeing Nazi persecution, instilling a lifelong hatred of anti-semitism.

Having won a space at Somerville College, Oxford she showed the scale of her ambition by becoming one of the first women to lead the university’s Conservative association despite competition from wealthier male rivals.

Following a short spell as a research chemist with J Lyons of Hammersmith she became the youngest Conservative candidate in the 1950 general election after gaining the nomination for Dartford. This unsuccessful brush with electoral politics introduced her to Dennis Thatcher, a divorcee ten years her senior, who she swiftly married.

After retraining as a lawyer she was called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1953 – just months after giving birth to her twins Mark and Carol – before continuing her search for a safe Conservative seat, despite staunch opposition from local constituency parties who did not feel a young mother should be seeking election. She was eventually returned for the north London suburb of Finchley in 1959.

One of only 25 women MPs elected that year, Thatcher set about establishing herself as a frontbench politician in a very male world, holding a variety of roles over a 15 year period. This culminated in a bruising four years as Ted Heath’s education secretary where she gained notoriety after spending cuts hit the supply of milk to schools.

When other Tory grandees declined to challenge Heath for the party leadership in 1975, she took her chance and became Britain’s first – and so far only – female leader of a major UK political party. In the face of widespread industrial action she won the 1979 election with a 44-seat majority.

Determined to reduce the role of the state, she slashed tax, backed measures to curb unions, and launched an economic revolution that transformed the country. But her third term was marred by the poll tax riots and party splits over Europe, ending in her resignation following a leadership challenge in November 1990.

She left parliament in 1992 and wrote her memoirs. Increasingly frail, she moved out of her Belgravia townhouse at the start of 2013 and died in the Ritz hotel.