Who is Mark Thatcher? Inside the scandal-scarred life of Margaret’s son
November 21, 2020
Margaret Thatcher’s favorite child was a spoiled mama’s boy who could do no wrong, even as he repeatedly embarrassed her and reportedly tried to trade on her power as British prime minister to make his fortune.
Played by Freddie Fox in the fourth season of Netflix’s “The Crown,” which premiered last week, Mark Thatcher comes across as entitled and arrogant as he gets lost during the Paris-Dakar road rally in 1982. His real-life desert wanderings sparked a massive international manhunt and dented the Iron Lady’s steely facade. When her son disappeared, Margaret was seen crying in public for the first and only time during her nearly 11 years in office.
Margaret — who at the time of the desert disappearance had been in power nearly three years — admitted in interviews that “my heart stopped” when she realized that her son, then 28 and the “favorite” of her twin children, went missing when he and his teammates got lost in the Sahara Desert on Jan. 8, 1982. The famously stern prime minister was so rattled days after the news that she canceled a high-level meeting with the Hungarian foreign minister and retreated to her home at 10 Downing St. in London.
In “The Crown,” Margaret (played by Gillian Anderson) lets her guard down during one of her private tête-à-têtes with Queen Elizabeth when, teary-eyed, she calls Mark “a very special child — the kind of son any mother would dream of having.”
The favoritism is painfully obvious to Mark’s twin, Carol (played by Rebecca Humphries), who confronts her mother in a memorable scene. In real life, Carol was also clear-eyed about the preference. “Unloved is not the right word but I never felt that I made the grade,” she told The Independent.
Even as prime minister, Margaret hand-washed Mark’s shirts, “pressed them and folded them neatly in little plastic bags for traveling,” recalled his wife, Sarah-Jane.
While Margaret was enthralled with her son — “He could sell snow to the Eskimos and sand to the Arabs,” she once gushed — his apparent willingness to exploit her powerful position to score lucrative deals was considered a liability by her handlers.
Mark was the leader’s Achilles heel, and aides knew that her own eagerness to help him at any cost threatened her grip on power.
When Mark asked Margaret’s press secretary Sir Bernard Ingham how he could help his mother win the 1987 general election, the reply was swift: “Leave the country,” he said.
Mark and Carol were born on Aug. 15, 1953, the same year that their 28-year-old mother, who harbored strong political ambitions, had qualified as an attorney. Their father, businessman Denis Thatcher, was at a cricket match during the difficult birth, according to reports. By the time the twins were 6, Margaret became a member of parliament; a year later, Mark and Carol were shipped off to posh boarding schools.
While his sister began a successful career as a journalist, Mark, a mediocre student, studied to be an accountant but reportedly failed his qualifying exams three times. He moved to Hong Kong to pursue business interests and in 1977, at age 24, founded Mark Thatcher Racing. Although the company was reportedly plagued by financial problems, he participated in a handful of 24-hour Le Mans endurance competitions, crashing his custom-built Osella racing car during a race in June 1980. He walked away unscathed.
A few months before, Mark had started trading on his mother’s fame as Britain’s first female prime minister — agreeing to model clothes for a Japanese textile company in exchange for the firm’s sponsorship.
The move was not welcome in the UK, which was in the throes of Margaret’s fiscal policies that led to widespread unemployment. The National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers called it “shameless” for the prime minister’s son to advertise foreign clothes at a time when more than 15,000 British textile workers were unemployed.
Although it was reported that he received as much as £40,000 for a set of Japanese television commercials promoting Cutty Sark whiskey, Mark denied this.
But racing was his passion, and he soon headed back to the circuit, this time agreeing with, he later admitted, almost no preparation to take part in the Paris-Dakar road rally: a grueling 6,200-mile race through some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain in northern Africa.
“I’ve now raced in Le Mans and other things — this rally is no problem,” a cocky Mark told reporters.
Shortly after setting off from Paris on Jan. 1, 1982, Mark, teammate Anne-Charlotte Verney and a mechanic went missing somewhere in Algeria near the Mali border. His mother called the British ambassador in Algeria and launched an international rescue effort involving French aircraft, an RAF Hercules rescue helicopter and the Algerian air force. Denis flew to North Africa to help search for his son.
Mark and his teammates were spotted by an Algerian air force plane six days later. With their drinking water dangerously low in the hot desert, they were rescued by the military on Jan. 14. Mark arrogantly shrugged off the experience and refused to thank his Algerian rescuers, saying all he needed was “a beer and a sandwich, a bath and a shave” in order to get back on track. (It’s unknown how the team got lost.)
Following the rescue, Mark, his Paris-Dakar crew and his father celebrated in Tamanrasset, Algeria, racking up a dinner and drinks bill totaling more than 11,500 Algerian dinars — a small fortune in the impoverished country. Later, Denis and Mark flew to London on Algeria’s presidential airplane.
Files released in 2012 show that Margaret reimbursed the British government £1,784.80 for the rescue operation to avoid accusations that she allowed taxpayers to foot the bill for her son’s misadventures.
“I hope this is the last of Mark’s motor racing,” noted Carol in the Daily Express. “Mum can do without the hassle.”
But the hassles came dangerously close to ending her administration.
In Oman, Mark set up a consulting company and allegedly traded on his mother’s name to secure a multimillion-dollar deal for Cementation International, a company he represented, to build a university — a contract worth hundreds of millions of British pounds. Bidders on the contract complained that Margaret used her influence with high-level government officials in Oman in order to help her son’s firm. When the deal was exposed in 1984, the prime minister’s closest advisers reportedly insisted that Mark leave the country immediately.
Margaret’s private secretary, Robin Butler, later told her biographer that Margaret agreed to help her son because “she wanted to see Mark right. She sought the deal for Mark.”
Mark ended up in Dallas, Texas, where he met and married millionaire Diane Burgdorf in 1984, when he was 31. After meeting at a party, Burgdorf, then 24, noted that their first conversation was about his mother. “I figured that anyone who loved his mother that much must have been raised well,” she wrote in the Evening Standard.
But after several years, Burgdorf came to see Mark as “a megalomaniac”: “In airports he was like a Sherman tank,” she wrote in 2006. “He would just plow people down. I’d be in his wake, apologizing.”
He also thought nothing of storming into a restaurant kitchen if his food was delayed or asking one of his mother’s bodyguards to buy him a carton of milk, Burgdorf said.
The couple, who had two children, divorced because of Mark’s numerous infidelities and shady business dealings, Burgdorf said. “He was incredibly selfish, putting his own needs for self-fulfillment, greed and lust for power before his family,” she told The Independent newspaper in 2008.
There were other deals in which he allegedly sought to trade on his mother’s influence, including an arms purchase between the Saudi government and British Aerospace, which allegedly earned him $19 million. It was part of a series of arms sales to the Saudis under Margaret’s rule known as Al Yamamah and worth tens of billions of pounds. Four years after his mother left office, Mark denied his participation.
More than a decade later, allegedly hounded by the IRS over unpaid corporate taxes and after failed business deals in the US, Mark rented a mansion in Cape Town, South Africa, and continued his business operations. In 2003, after his father’s death, he took over Denis’ hereditary title and became Sir Mark Thatcher. A year later, he got tangled up in a coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea. The country has some of the biggest oil reserves in sub-Saharan Africa.
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Mark was convicted and fined by South African courts for helping finance the coup organized by a group of British businessmen. Authorities, who arrested him under South Africa’s anti-mercenary laws, showed that Mark had transferred nearly $300,000 to mercenaries who planned the coup. Pleading guilty, he was given a four-year suspended sentence and fined $560,000.
Although his finances continued to be a source of speculation in the British press, Mark, now 67, has kept a low profile since marrying his second wife, Sarah-Jane Clemence Russell, in 2008. When Margaret died in 2013, Mark returned to London for the funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
But in 2016, Mark’s name resurfaced in the Panama Papers, a trove of leaked documents containing information about the offshore holdings of some of the world’s wealthiest people who employed Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca to shelter their assets. Mark was listed as the beneficial owner of a trust that owns a house in Barbados where his family vacations annually. The trust was hidden behind a complicated web.
“He is so self-absorbed that he puts his wants and needs above everything,” said Burgdorf. “He’s very Clintonesque.”
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