June 04, 1979 12:00 PM

He is unique in modern European history—the first ever to serve as the First Gentleman of an elected head of government. Yet if Denis Thatcher, 64, finds anything remarkable about being the man behind Margaret Thatcher, the new prime minister of England, his reactions are hidden behind a suitably stiff upper lip. “They say I am the most shadowy husband of all time,” the semiretired executive once admitted. “I intend to stay that way and leave the limelight to my wife.”

Curiosity about him—both in British households and in places like the Oval Office—is natural. He is, after all, the man for whom the new PM still occasionally cooks breakfast. His influence on her thinking is a matter of great and continuing speculation.

“He is a good, Conservative, free-enterprise businessman,” Mrs. Thatcher’s office tells those who inquire, but it also takes pains to point out that he has no official role in the government. The British cabinet is composed of members of Parliament, so he will not be permitted in their councils (as Rosalynn Carter is in the White House). He has even avoided the traditional ribbon-cutting and baby-kissing routine of political spouses before him. Asked for some description of his role in her career, Margaret once offered: “He behaves, well, as a sort of shock absorber.”

Clearly, Margaret is the engine. On political outings, Denis trails quietly behind, opening his mouth only to whisper “Walk, dear, don’t talk” if she tarries too long for a chat. “I’m a Thatcher, too,” he sometimes tells voters modestly. A few observers think such self-effacing diplomacy occasionally galls him. “During one election meeting there was a crass question from some bloody woman,” a male journalist recalls. “Denis looked up sharply and opened his mouth, but then he stopped himself. He had to sit there and chew his nails.”

On the other hand, such circumspection seems entirely in character. Denis Thatcher is nature’s own Tory—inheritor of family money based on his grandfather’s discovery of a weed-killer. (Denis sold the business in 1965.) A Conservative party volunteer, he met Margaret Hilda Roberts in 1949. She was 24 and a candidate for Parliament; he was 34 and divorced. (Says his first wife, also named Margaret and now Lady Hickman: “It was one of those silly wartime marriages which never really got off the ground,” and she adds charitably, “Denis is the kindest man I have ever known.”)

He married the second Margaret in 1951, and after the birth of their twins, Carole and Mark, in 1953, each parent set an independent course—his in a thriving paint-and-chemical business, hers in politics.

Denis splits his time now between the office and his pleasures—”all sorts of games” is how he describes them. “He’s a man’s man,” says Ron Monk, a sometime golf mate. “He enjoys a pint, calls a spade a spade, uses four-letter words when necessary. He’s good company.” Being the prime minister’s man obviously has meant some changes—not least their impending move from a Chelsea townhouse to the upstairs apartment at No. 10 Downing Street—but he is adjusting to the new way of life gamely. When the polls showed his wife ahead shortly before the election, Denis acknowledged quietly, “I suppose that now I’ll be taking my orders like everybody else.”

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