When she entered the room, her first gesture was to send the white-jacketed Chinese steward back for a larger glass of Scotch, gesturing with fingers held three inches apart the measure that she favored. Then she looked about for the first question, only to be met with silence — a response, as I learned later, that was a reflex among the London-based reporters, who had long experience of how dismissive she could be.
Discomfited, I jumped in, asking if she had any answer to protesters in Hong Kong, with its six million people, who were denouncing Britain’s failure to give them a say, by way of a referendum, on the prospect of being handed into the thrall of communism, an ideology Mrs. Thatcher abhorred.
Years later, a British diplomat, retelling the story over a reunion dinner, said I had asked the prime minister why she had “sold Hong Kong down the river”; but that, most assuredly, was not how I expressed it, for all that the embellishment improved the diplomat’s story. In any case, Mrs. Thatcher leaned forward in her armchair, studying me for a moment with a withering eye, before expressing her astonishment.
“What an extraordinary question!” she said, taking a sip of her whiskey before turning to the ambassador and saying, “Did you say that this chap is English?” Then, without waiting for a reply, she resumed her rebuke. “I must assume that you have been away from the U.K. for a very long time,” she said. “If you knew me at all, you’d know that I never” — the emphasis was on “never” — “answer a question based on a false premise.”