Margaret Thatcher, the Tories' 'iron Maiden,' Is the Betting Choice to Become Madame P.m.

updated 04/30/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/30/1979 01:00AM

They call her the "Iron Maiden" (for the 17th-century torture device), and few observers of Margaret Thatcher's relentless drive for power in Britain wonder why. Four years ago she stage-managed the ouster of her own Tory party leader, Prime Minister Edward Heath. Last month she challenged the Labor government of PM James Callaghan—and brought off the first no-confidence vote to pass the House of Commons in 55 years. And next week, if her plans and polls hold steady, Thatcher, 53, will become the first woman in European history ever elected head of government.

"Don't be afraid of change!" goes her rallying slogan. "Don't duck it." Her campaign promises change in spades; her enthusiasts foresee Britain's most dramatic political overhaul since Churchill was unhorsed in 1945. Ideologically, Mrs. Thatcher is the Ronald Reagan of her country and, critics would argue, then some. An adherent to the standard conservative catechism of broad tax and spending cuts, she wants to streamline Britain's social-service programs and get tough on the unions and street crime (she's known to favor bringing back capital punishment).

Her initial 20-point lead in the polls had been cut to as low as six percent by last week, and it was perhaps a tribute to the gravity of Britain's problems that her promise of strong medicine retained so much appeal. She is still remembered as "Thatcher the Milk Snatcher"—the Minister of Education who killed a free-milk program for schoolchildren in 1970. Nor will she soon be forgotten by the nation's 1.9 million immigrants as an advocate of strict quotas. More significant are the 11.5 million unionists who will be out in reunified force against her. Her platform, "The Conservative Manifesto," calls for, among other things, stringent new limits on labor stoppages, including a suspension of social-security benefits for families of striking workers. Thatcher herself came up the hard way—a grocer's daughter who helped pay her way through Oxford with odd jobs. Married to oil executive Denis

Thatcher in 1951, she gave birth to twins but kept studying for a career in law and politics. She never became an ardent feminist, however, and bills herself still as the dutiful homemaker, regularly fixing breakfast and dinner for her son and now semiretired husband. She markets occasionally at neighborhood Chelsea shops (usually her housekeeper does it). As for her career, Thatcher is offhand. "I always say to my husband that I'd be unbearable if I had all this surplus energy to fire off at home," she said once. "It's just as well to do it somewhere else."

In the surveys, British women show a marked preference for Callaghan, who is 14 years older and more convivial on the hustings. Thatcher, rather stilted in public and perhaps worried over her lack of international and administrative experience, dodged any TV debates against "Sunny Jim."

Old-line Tories are in the bag, but Thatcher also needs swing votes to take the election—and, if she does, to govern. That, observers say, will jeopardize her most drastic solutions for Britain, if not her dauntless style of proposing them. "I've learned that if you've got a message, preach it," says Thatcher. "Remember those Old Testament prophets. They didn't say, 'I want consensus!' They said, 'This is what I believe.' " Win or lose, she has given the voters a clearly articulated alternative that is as refreshing as hearing a feminine voice in politics.

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