Few politicians inspired as much affection, and so much sheer hatred, as Margaret Hilda Thatcher writes Peter Rhodes.
On her rare visits to the Black Country, whether buying a handbag or meeting the jobless, she experienced both.
Even as Lady Thatcher, 87, lay in her hospital bed in November, the anti-Maggie zealots could find no mercy for the woman they blamed for so much.
One vicious emailer to the Sky TV website wrote: “Ah, the Thatcher years – repossessions, job losses, family breakdowns, sell off of our National Treasures, 87 years is too long in my book.”
It was a far cry from the glory days of 1979 when Mrs Thatcher led the Conservatives to victory.
Soon after entering Downing Street, she visited the washing machine company Servis UK, based in Darlaston.
She chatted and joked with workers and talked to trade union officials during the hour-long visit which was part of a two-day trip to the West Midlands.
Thirty years on, Servis has gone, a victim of New Labour globalisation rather than Thatcherite monetarism, and the woman who was so popular back then has bitter enemies now.
Another Sky emailer harangued the dying former premier for her stand against the IRA:
“She allowed the hunger strikers to die in 1981 in Ireland . She said crime is crime is crime in regards to the IRA.
“ The two-faced evil woman then let the killers of policewoman Yvonne Fletcher leave this country. All of a sudden crime was not crime when it involved oil and profit for her pals.”
Back in January 1987, the year of her third and final General Election victory Dudley council’s Labour leader, Councillor Fred Hunt, used more temperate language.
But he clearly objected to the Iron Lady being on his patch during a whistle-stop tour of the Black Country.
“When she came to power, unemployment was four per cent in this area,” he growled. “Now it is rising to 17 per cent.
“If she had been coming with a cheque in her hand I would have taken the time to meet her.”
But he didn’t. Maggie was surrounded by supporters as she blamed the West Midlands’ employment problems on restrictive practices and firms’ slowness to change. “There is no other country in Europe which has had to tackle the restrictive practices, over-manning, and hidden unemployment which we faced in Britain,’’ she said on a tour which took in the Dudley Innovation Centre, the Royal Brierley Crystal glass factory, C & C Bedding and Fullex, a company producing security locks, aluminium windows and glazing systems.
At the glass factory she angered management and workers alike by persistently referring to the area as “Birmingham”.
Later in the same year the Prime Minister got a flea in her ear from a young man who was bitter about life on the dole.
She was in Wolverhampton to launch the Government’s latest task force set up in the city centre.
Mrs Thatcher spoke to trainees including Leslie Dunn, aged 23, who had been jobless for four years.
He said he came from a family which traditionally voted Conservative but added: “I voted Liberal at the last election, and I don’t want to say more than that about politics.’’
After talking with Mrs Thatcher, he said: “She said there were jobs available - which is the same as everybody is telling me, but I’ve yet to find one. Sadly, I thought it was the same old story.’’
She chatted with staff at the Complete Lady hat and glove shop in Bow Street, Bilston where she took out a cheque book and spent £40 on a black, crocodile-style handbag and three diamante hatpins.
“The bag was the first one she looked at,’’ said a member of staff. “She said people were going in for large handbags now and the bag just suited her.’’
Although many blamed her policies for the demise of heavy engineering and the decline of the Black Country, it was her government which, in 1988, announced the Black Country Spine Road.
This new route, cutting through the heart of heavily-congested West Bromwich, Wednesbury and Bilston, opened up new land for development.
The Iron Lady made the road sound like the fulfilment of a personal pledge to the region by the party which stood for backbone. She declared: “When I went there a few months ago, the chairman of the urban development corporation said to me ‘Prime Minister, we must have a spine road’. So I thought, we are the party to come to for spine, so they are getting their spine road.”
It was stirring stuff. But within a couple of years the Thatcher era was over.
The Tories sensed they would lose the next General Election.
Michael Heseltine stood against her for leadership of the party and she refused to walk away from the fight.
On November 21, 1990, the Express & Star spoke for the nation as it commented: “Mrs Thatcher’s decision to contest the second ballot against Mr Heseltine was typical of the Prime Minister’s style. It was immediate, instinctive, autocratic - and totally wrong.
“ For the sake of her party and for the sake of this country, the lady has simply got to go. The Tories’ greatest asset has become their greatest liability. “
She was deposed amid tearful scenes in Downing Street.
John Major went on to win an unexpected and unprecedented fourth term for the Tories.
The lady who didn’t know the difference between Birmingham and the Black Country slipped into the backwaters of politics.
But after the unsure Major years, New Labour dawned and it brought a supreme irony.
For while her old Tory allies avoided her, both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown praised Mrs Thatcher.
In his autobiography Blair pays tribute to her “character, leadership and intelligence.”
In September 2007, Gordon Brown was delighted to welcome his old adversary to Downing Street, praising her as “a “conviction politician”.
That old Tory warrior Lord Tebbit, in a veiled swipe at David Cameron, suggested that Brown was the natural heir to Thatcher.
And when Cameron was unable to form a Conservative government in May of this year and climbed into bed with the Lib-Dems, the Tory-supporting magazine The Spectator hailed yet another heir to Mrs Thatcher.
But it wasn’t David Cameron. It was his Lib-Dem deputy, Nick Clegg.
“I was at university at the height of the Thatcher revolution and I recognise now something I did not at the time: that her victory over a vested interest, the trade unions, was immensely significant,” declared Clegg in an interview.
The Iron Lady may be gone but her legacy, in some unexpected quarters, will be with us for years.