The only small mercy? My darling Margaret went before I did

The only small mercy? My darling Margaret went before I did

January 30, 2021

The only small mercy? My darling Margaret went before I did: Tory grandee Norman Tebbit reveals the toll of dementia on his wife, the music that brought her comfort and the relief she never had to cope without him

Tory grandee Norman Tebbit, Mrs Thatcher’s loyal attack dog, has been called many things in his time, but I’m not sure even his enemies would reach for the word ‘cowardly’.

He does, though. Lord Tebbit, who will be 90 in March (‘if I make it’), is describing his wife’s descent into dementia, and assessing how he coped when she started losing her mind and the still-functioning parts of her body.

How tough he is on himself.

‘It was perhaps rather cowardly, but when Parliament was sitting, I did take refuge there,’ he says.

‘I would drive to London. I could leave my car in the car park at the House of Lords and stay overnight and maybe see some friends, knowing that if I needed to get home quickly, I could.

‘I could get two days away, essentially, leaving Margaret with her carers.’

Tory grandee Norman Tebbit (pictured with wife Lady Margaret Tebbit), Mrs Thatcher’s loyal attack dog, has been called many things in his time, but I’m not sure even his enemies would reach for the word ‘cowardly’

You needed that escape route? He nods. ‘I did.’

There was no such respite for his wife, Margaret. Lady Tebbit passed away on December 19, the week before Christmas. She had suffered so much, and for so long, having been confined to a wheelchair since the IRA bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the Tory Party Conference in 1984.

It was not these injuries that overwhelmed her, however, her husband (and chief carer, though he baulks at that description) explains.

A disease called Lewy body dementia took her slowly, over a period of nine years — the path beginning with a little confusion in Waitrose (‘when the manager called me to say he wanted to check she had got home safely because she had been a bit confused and seemed lost’), and progressing to hallucinations, cognitive impairment, memory loss, the inability to feed herself… the full works.

‘It’s a particularly foul disease,’ says Lord Tebbit with characteristic directness.

Norman Tebbit marries Margaret at Westminster Congregationalist Chapel in 1956

‘One of the most distressing aspects was when she started seeing things that weren’t there — animals, dragons coming out of the fireplace and attacking her.

‘Medication suppressed that, and there were times where she seemed almost herself. But there was a gradual decline. She lost her memory of the children and the grandchildren she adored.

‘As recently as three years ago, she’d been able to come downstairs and we could have dinner together, and there were even times when her carers and I could take her out and things could almost be ‘normal’.

‘But towards the end, she slept more and more, although I’m not sure where you differentiate between sleep and unconsciousness.

‘It’s a progressive thing. It destroys the brain area by area, affects the cognitive control, heart and vital functions. It took her mind and then it took her life. The world closed in on her.’

On him, too. There were many meals eaten alone, it seems. ‘Sometimes, I would take my meal and go and sit with Margaret, but that became harder as she slept more.’

She could not feed herself? ‘Up until about four years ago, she could hold a cup, but not recently, no.’

His old political colleague Alan Clark once noted in his diaries that Tebbit ‘radiates menace, without being overly aggressive’.

You very much get the sense that his preferred way of dealing with Lewy body dementia would have been to take it outside and give it a good thrashing. He never could.

Pictured: Norman Tebbit, Margaret Tebbit and their family

‘Dealing with dementia is very different from dealing with a physical disability, I think,’ he says.

‘It’s more difficult to cope with. It doesn’t matter what will you seek to exert, you can’t change that person being destroyed by the illness.’

This is Lord Tebbit’s first interview since his wife died. He has only been a widower for five weeks, and he is in that chaotic place where he keeps remembering people he ought to thank.

Amid the long list of carers, medics, friends and family, he singles out a man he has never met. An unlikely saviour.

‘Someone I really owe a lot to is the violinist Andre Rieu,’ he says. ‘My wife and I were never great concert goers, but she had his CDs and towards the end they were the thing we knew could soothe her and calm her down.

‘One of the saving graces is that she could mostly be soothed back to sleep. At the end, her companion was not much me as Mr Rieu.’

He gives a dry smile. No tears. There haven’t been any since Margaret died.

‘There is a terrific sense of loneliness, but no, I don’t cry,’ he admits. ‘I do confess I sometimes sit down and feel bloody miserable until I give myself a metaphorical kick up the backside and tell myself to get on with things.’

What things, though? Caring for ‘my Margaret’ (he called her that to differentiate between the Margarets in his life) was always at the top of the Norman Tebbit to-do list. Everything else in life, political ambition included, was pushed downward. He could have been a Prime Minister, but he famously refused to stand for the leadership of the party because his wife needed him more.

Specifically, he needed to be free to take a job outside Westminster so that he could afford to pay for the round-the-clock care his wife would need for the rest of her life.

And here we are.

Perhaps the saddest moment in our interview comes when he says that the pain at this ‘big gaping hole’ in his life is tempered by a huge sense of relief that Margaret died before he did.

‘My big fear was that I would predecease her,’ he says. ‘It had been clear to me for some time that it would be best if I outlived her so I could make sure she was properly cared for up to the moment of her death.

‘I do feel for people who do not have family, or the support system we do. They end up going into care homes. That was not going to happen to Margaret. Not while I was alive.’

Lord Tebbit himself was badly injured in the Brighton bombing, when the couple’s bed fell four storeys. In the darkness, as they lay holding hands, waiting for help, he thought he would die, and passed a message on to Margaret to give to their children, in that event.

He still walks with a limp. Life as they knew it was shattered. Margaret spent two years in hospital and they had never really been alone since.

Different carers have come and gone over the years, but there has always been live-in help, even more since the dementia took hold.

Thank God he did sacrifice his political ambitions, too, given the cost of the bills. ‘We invested the compensation Margaret got wisely, but even so, it would have run out.

‘We had good help for the last few years from the health service, I have to say, but I do feel for all the people who have to deal with this without family.’

He understands why people crack, why they pray for their loved ones to die, then are consumed by guilt. Yet, no, it hasn’t changed his view of assisted dying.

‘I am not one of those who thinks that life should be terminated prematurely, because there are extraordinary dangers in that approach. There is too much of a risk that people with something to gain will take advantage.’

He does have a certain sympathy for those who help a loved-one die. ‘I can’t find it in my heart to blame them too much.’

He skips through the nine years of hell, shuddering at the awful bits and insisting that the carers ‘got the brunt of it’. He talks of ‘night carers’ and ‘day carers’.

Until a few years ago, he and his wife shared a bed, and he pitched in with the task of turning Margaret in the night — a requirement, because of the nature of her paralysis — but about four years ago, he accepted that she needed a hospital bed.

He stayed in the room, though. ‘Luckily, it’s a big house. Big rooms. I had a bed on the other side of the room, so it was easier for the carers to tip her and toss her. I could pull the covers over my head.’

Margaret died in their bedroom, slipping away quietly in the night, mercifully. ‘She’d actually had a good day the previous day so there was no warning.

‘One of the girls came, in the small hours, to check on her, and found she had passed away. She came to wake me. There was no panic, just a sense of loss. You sit there and think ‘what do we do now?’.’

The funeral was ‘very much a comfort’. Numbers were limited because of Covid, but their children John, Alison and William were there and a few political friends including his old mate Jonathan Aitken (‘who found God in prison. Or rather God found him. He’s been ordained since’).

Is Lord Tebbit religious? Well, he wasn’t. ‘I was agnostic, but a few years ago the Dean at the Cathedral got to me.’ God has been allowed in. But, no, he still cannot forgive the bombers ‘because they have never repented. If you go to confession, the priest will ask if you are sorry for what you did. They have never done that, so no.’ Yes, he still wants them to rot in hell.

It was a numb Christmas. He stayed with his daughter in Norwich, but has just returned home to the rambling house he shared with Margaret in Bury St Edmunds, the one they bought because it was big enough for her wheelchair and army of carers.

He’s tinier than he ever was (and he was skeletal, even as a young man) and concedes the size of the house, and its emptiness, unnerves him. One of Margaret’s carers has been kept on. He accepts that he now needs care, too. ‘It makes sense that she is here in case I become ill in the night and she needs to get me to hospital.’

He brightens. ‘My son had the wonderful idea of buying a baby monitor, which they have rigged up. I have the baby part by my bed, and the carer has the other part. She’s only come running once, and that was when I dropped a book off the bed with a thump.’

People have rallied. He’s had both his vaccines and ventured to Waitrose, where he had an emotional wobble when the staff presented him with flowers and the manager pressed a bottle of wine into his hand ‘to ease me along’.

He gives a little laugh. ‘I have a rule that I do not drink until after 6.30pm, though.’ Standards!

You won’t be tempted by a tipple at 11am? ‘Oh yes I will be tempted, but I will resist.’

He’s happy — delighted, even — to talk about his 64-year marriage. There are recollections about family holidays, that time they spent three months in Hawaii (when he was a pilot), tales about building sandcastles on the beach with his children. All the dogs they shared.

No dog now? ‘No. It would be one more thing for other people to look after.’ His eyes dart to all the family pictures on the wall.

‘That’s how I will remember her, with the grandchildren. It pained her that she could never bounce them on her knee.

‘One of my fondest memories of recent times was of a day she was well enough to go out into the Abbey gardens. There was a family playing rounders, and the grandmother was running. Margaret whooped her on.’

They have five grandchildren and now five great-grandchildren. ‘She got to hold the eldest, which was wonderful. He’s seven now, and wants to be a chef. Apparently, he was complaining the other day that he didn’t have the ingredients for Hollandaise sauce.’

Some turn their face to the wall in bereavement, but I don’t think Lord Tebbit will. ‘Well you can’t. You just have to deal with what life throws at you, and I want to be a part of their lives.’

He and Margaret married in 1956. He was decisive about that one. When they met, he was a pilot, doing his National Service. He would go on to become a commercial pilot. She was a nurse at Westminister Hospital.

‘We met at a party. We were both late because we were working so we were the only sober people there. We were married six months later.’

Why her? ‘She had the most determined spirit. She had already overcome so much — she had a difficult childhood in the Fens, a tenant farmer father, and she was one of ten.’

She made him laugh, too. ‘We were always laughing. She was such fun.’

Margaret never wanted to be a Tory wife. ‘I think she would have preferred it if I’d remained a pilot,’ he concedes. Truth be told, his political career left them both stunned.

They’d already shouldered a lot. Margaret had severe post-natal depression after the birth of their first child, and needed to be hospitalised. He ‘became Mother’ for a while, putting his flying career on hold. Then it was her turn to make sacrifices. ‘I won my first seat when I didn’t expect to. I thought we’d have longer.

‘Margaret came for the count and we stayed over. We woke up the next morning and I looked at her and said: ‘What have I done?’. I’d taken a 50 per cent pay cut overnight.’

She was supportive, though. ‘Always. I could not have done it without her, and she paid a high price for my life in politics.’

She hated elements of his job. She loathed that Spitting Image puppet which depicted him as a leather-clad, knuckle-duster baring thug. He always rather liked it, and it suited him to be seen as the resident hardman.

The Chingford Skinhead thing was partly true, too, though, wasn’t it? Did Margaret see it?

‘I think she knew there was a secret aggression, not towards her, but towards the outside world. If someone stood on my toe I was very likely to push them off.’

He never thought he was heartless, though. ‘Sometimes to get things done, a certain element of firmness was needed.’

At home, though? Another dry smile. ‘I had a very different relationship with my wife than I did with Len Murray of the TUC.’

How did his wife get on with that other Margaret? They were very … different? ‘Very. I won’t say Margaret Thatcher was narrow-minded, but she had a narrow focus, and her emphasis was on running a Government.’

We meander in and out of politics. He sits in the Lords now and admits he misses being there in person. ‘I miss my friends, and even my enemies.’

He is keen to get back, ‘when the restrictions allow’ — but knows he cannot keep going for ever. If the decision to refurbish the House is taken, ‘I would chuck it in. I don’t think I’d want to go on.’

He joins debates on Zoom (he’s fine with video calling as long as he has his hearing aid in; in fact, we are talking via Zoom) and keeps his mind busy by writing a fortnightly newspaper column.

He has watched how the Prime Minister has handled the crisis with interest and often dismay.

He can still eviscerate: ‘Boris is not really a man for decisions and action,’ he says. ‘He is a man for words and contemplation.

‘His choice of Dominic Cummings was a very bad one. Cummings was very good when he was given a precise brief, but if he is not tightly held then he will decide what to do for himself. Now he is gone, I think things are better for Boris.

‘If this vaccine works and we can work towards economic recovery, then the latter part of his time might be better remembered in the history books.’

How would Thatcher’s Government have handled this? ‘I have to say I am rather glad we did not have to. We had the Falklands and Scargill, but this is more difficult. I’m jolly glad I’m not in his seat.

‘But there would have been a more formal approach. We would have been better organised. A team from the Cabinet would have been sent off to come up with a recommended course of action, and brought it back to be discussed. The Cabinet might have agreed or disagreed, but it would have been a formal process.’

I think this means the Government would have got off its backside. It’s the Tebbit refrain. He never actually said the words ‘on your bike’ which are so often attributed to him, but the sentiment was true then, and remains so now.

There is still life in the old rottweiler. He rails today about being left to sort out Margaret’s affairs. ‘One thing I have discovered is what a dreadful business it is clearing up someone’s affairs, getting probate. The energy it takes, at a time when you are in a state of emotional distress. I’m fortunate I have two sons and a daughter. Other people are not.’

Surprisingly, perhaps, he has already relinquished Power of Attorney over his own affairs. Odd, since he seems mentally sound.

‘But it might not have been that way. It might have been me who had fallen into dementia, or predeceased her,’ he says.

Anyway, he’s a harsher judge of his own brain. ‘My memory is not what it used to be,’ he says. ‘But I can keep my brain busy.’

There is absolutely no sense of self pity. There never was. Ask him how their marriage survived it all and he shrugs.

‘You cope at whatever life swings at you, guided by the words you say on your wedding day — in sickness and in health, till death do us part. You have to stand by it.’

Even after death does part, it seems. What comes next for Lord Tebbit? He looks at one of those pictures on the wall.

‘I can’t have that many years left, but I have to use those years in a way that would be a credit to her.’

Lord Tebbit’s fee for this interview will be donated to Alzheimer’s Research UK.

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