It’s a long story, but I once ended up at dinner with Margaret Thatcher. It was a warm evening in June 2003 and Bill Deedes, the illustrious former editor of the Telegraph, was celebrating his 90th birthday at the Carlton Club. I had got to know him a few years earlier, on a Unicef trip to Sudan, and we ended up spending time together, first in Kenya. He was ever the eager young journalist, showing up all chatty at the grass huts in Lokichogio and asking for the chief, before taking the man off for a gin and tonic. That was his style. I liked teasing him about being the model for William Boot in Scoop, and he admitted, when I pushed him, that he may indeed have taken a few too many suitcases to Addis Ababa in 1936. ‘Evelyn overdid it,’ he said. ‘Overdoing it was rather his thing.’
We sat upstairs under a huge portrait of Disraeli. Thatcher was across from me, wearing a blue, sparkly twinset and a flowery brooch. She looked very tired, like someone who’s done too much with her life, and Denis was sitting beside her laughing at nothing and hardly eating. Deedes told a story about the jolly dinners they used to have at Number Ten and how the prime minister of Canada had sent her a battleship by way of a thank-you note at the time of the Falklands War. Meanwhile I was trying to make conversation with the elderly gentleman beside me. He had a lot to say about herbaceous borders. He was John Profumo. But I didn’t know it was him until the end: helping him on with his coat, I saw a little nametag. He liked talking to Denis and they seemed to have things in common.
We can now say a bit more about that, thanks to the third volume of Charles Moore’s Thatcher biography, and I would urge anybody who likes a bit of Richard II with their morning coffee to read the last two hundred pages straightaway. Thatcher’s downfall, we know, was a coup de théâtre if ever there was one, but the book is also very telling about the duplicity of certain friends and the trauma of lost power. Thatcher is distraught from the moment she is ousted and finds it impossible to deal with a world that she is not in the daily business of shaping. Denis, on the other hand, seems glad to calm down (‘Steady the Buffs,’ he says to a tearful Maggie as she sets off for Buckingham Palace). But hidden in the biography, and too little remarked on in the reviews, is news of a friendship that sprang up at that time between Denis and Mrs Foreman, alias Mandy Rice-Davies. My neighbour at dinner, the gentle and shy Baron Profumo, had reason of course to regret Mandy’s existence, along with Christine Keeler’s, and could only have been perplexed by Denis’s taking up with her.
It happened like this. Denis was for years the vice-chairman of a waste-management company called Attwoods, whose head office was in Florida. The chair of the company, Ken Foreman, was married to Rice-Davies, and Denis used to go there for meetings and stay with them, and over time he and Rice-Davies grew close. Denis was always more sociable than his wife. He loved long lunches at his club with his ‘chummoes’, and he had, as Moore puts it, ‘many expressions indicating the need for a drink without delay’. These included ‘blow the bugle’ and ‘let the dog see the rabbit.’ Anyway, many drinks were had, and Rice-Davies came to feel that Denis was ‘rather lonely’. Something was missing from his life. ‘He liked strong women,’ Rice-Davies told Moore, ‘quite bossy women, which is why he liked me.’ The Foremans had a house in Lowndes Square. ‘He’d just ring the doorbell and come in,’ Rice-Davies said.
He also wrote Mandy affectionate letters (‘Mandy dear’). Coming to know Denis pretty well, Mandy concluded that his marriage was strong, but he felt the need to put some distance between his wife and himself: ‘He never made telephone calls home.’ Denis never concealed nor paraded his friendship with Mandy Rice-Davies, and the press never got hold of it. The only time he told her she could not come to something with him was before a Christmas party at Chequers to which he had wanted to invite the Foremans: ‘I’m quite embarrassed, but Margaret’s a great friend of Profumo, and he’ll be there.’ ‘“Oh,” I said,’ recalled Mandy, ‘“I’ve never met the chap,”’ which was true. Ken Foreman went to the party without his wife.
Charles Moore, incidentally, has an entertaining way with a footnote: ‘Marilyn Davies (1944-2014), educated Sharmans Cross secondary modern school, Solihull; model, novelist, showgirl and entrepreneur.’ He gives us such information every time a new person is introduced into the narrative, and it shouldn’t be startling, but somehow is, that pretty much the entirety of the book’s cast – Mandy Rice-Davies notwithstanding – went to a private school and Oxbridge. Choosing a page at random, we have: ‘William Whitelaw (1918-99), educated Winchester and Trinity College, Cambridge … Peter Brooke (1934-), educated Marlborough and Balliol College … Anthony Newton (1937-2012), educated Friends’ School, Saffron Walden and Trinity College, Cambridge.’ Next page: ‘(Ronald) Timothy Renton (1932-), educated Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford … John Selwyn Gummer (1939-) … King’s School, Rochester … Selwyn College, Cambridge … William Waldegrave (1946-) … Eton and Corpus Christi College, Oxford.’ It goes on and on. A Martian who came across Thatcher’s biography would imagine that all the dubious people in this corner of planet Earth, and all the people who comment on them, had first to spend a while at Oxford or Cambridge. Not Denis, though. He joined the family paint firm at 18. Only much later did he join the establishment in liking drinkies with Mandy and Christine.