Margaret Thatcher is to be given the ultimate accolade of a State funeral when she reaches the end of her days – the first British Prime Minister since Winston Churchill to be afforded such an honour.
But the possibility of a formal procession could be jeopardised by fears that there are insufficient troops available to line the route because the Armed Forces are so overstretched in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Although Lady Thatcher is currently in good health – she was with the Queen at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday – The Mail on Sunday has learned that plans
are under way for her funeral, when the time eventually comes, to take place at
St Paul’s Cathedral.
Highest honour: Lady Thatcher, pictured at this year’s Wimbledon, will have a State funeral
The Queen and Gordon Brown are both in discussions with Lady Thatcher’s private office concerning the arrangements. This does not reflect any concern over Lady Thatcher’s health, but simply the prudent long-term planning necessary for any event involving the Queen.
It has not yet been decided whether the 82-year-old former Conservative leader will lie in state in Westminster Hall. To date the only Prime Minister in the 20th and 21st centuries to be given this honour was Churchill.
There were four non-Royal State funerals in the 19th century – Nelson, Wellington, Palmerston and Gladstone.
Opulent: St Paul’s Cathedral, chosen by Lady Thatcher as funeral venue
St Paul’s was chosen at Lady Thatcher’s request. The Queen is expected to be among the many world leaders, Royals and other dignitaries who would be in attendance.
Overall arrangements for the funeral are being led by Sir Malcolm Ross, the Queen’s former Master of the Royal Household, who has managed every Royal funeral since 1997, including those of Princess Diana and the Queen Mother.
A source said: ‘Sir Malcolm has been brought in because he has an excellent track record and is considered the best man for the job.’
Sir Malcolm is renowned for his discretion and kept the plans for the Queen Mother’s funeral in his briefcase for 17 years. It is hoped that those for Lady Thatcher will also not be needed for many years.
His plans have also been discussed with Lady Thatcher’s daughter Carol and son Mark in conjunction with Mark Worthington, her senior adviser.
In a separate proposal, the Queen has also given her permission for Lady Thatcher to lie in the Chapel of St Mary’s Undercroft immediately beneath Westminster Hall on the night before her funeral. Family friends and VIPs would be able to visit the chapel to pay their last respects.
Informed sources last night confirmed that the Queen and Gordon Brown had given their blessing to the preparation of funeral arrangements for Lady Thatcher in recognition both of her achievements and for being Britain’s first woman Prime Minister.
She led the country from 1979 to 1990, winning three Elections and the Falklands War, and was credited with reversing the nation’s post-Second World War decline.
Despite her age, Lady Thatcher is in good health, although she has suffered a series of mini-strokes which resulted in short-term memory loss. Earlier this year she appeared frail when she was photographed with the Queen aboard the QE2 for Her Majesty’s final visit to the liner.
But a close friend said last night: ‘Lady T has been on fine form lately. She was with the Queen at a Buckingham Palace garden party on Tuesday, had lunch with a friend on Wednesday and is greatly looking forward to going on holiday in the French Alps with friends soon.’
A senior official involved in the funeral plans told The Mail on Sunday: ‘What’s in place at the moment is a contingency plan for a State funeral.
‘It is yet to be decided whether Lady Thatcher will lie in state. They won’t decide on the finer details until the actual time. There might be a new Prime Minister in place which could change things.
‘Ultimately it’s a call for the Government as to whether Lady Thatcher will lie in state.
One of the implications for a State funeral is that the Government meets the costs.
‘Another aspect is that there would usually be a long procession from Westminster Hall to St Paul’s Cathedral which involves the Armed Forces lining the route and marching through the streets of London.
Flashback: Sir Winston Churchill’s 1965 State funeral
‘There is an enormous pressure on our already stretched Forces and how many servicemen and women will be available is a serious consideration. It won’t be the case of bringing troops back home, but they are a long way from deciding on the finer details.
‘Whatever happens, the process will involve the Queen and the Ministry of Defence. It’s quite normal for a State funeral to be planned in advance. These things deserve forethought and planning; they can’t be conjured up over night.
‘Obviously everyone involved wants things to be as smooth as possible.’
State funerals are generally reserved for monarchs, but may, by order of the reigning monarch, be granted to other national heroes, such as Lord Nelson.
By tradition a State funeral for someone who is not a Royal is attended by the Monarch.
In addition, there is a lying in state and a military procession. But they are not all the same.
Hundreds of thousands of people filed past Churchill’s coffin during a three-day lying in state in Westminster Hall in 1965. By contrast, the public was not admitted during Gladstone’s lying in state in 1898.
Although the Queen Mother was Queen, she chose a Royal Ceremonial funeral.
However, her lying in state took place over three days and vast numbers queued to pay their respects.
Princess Diana also had a Royal Ceremonial funeral, a break with protocol since she was neither a consort to the Monarch nor heir to the throne. In other respects, it had all the trappings of a State funeral.
The funerals of other post-war Prime Ministers were considerably more modest than the plans being made for Lady Thatcher. No tickets were required to attend the Salisbury Cathedral funeral of her predecessor as Tory leader, Sir Edward Heath.
There was a simple ceremony on the Scilly Isles for Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Former Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was buried in a quiet Sussex churchyard after a private service near his family home.
Lady Thatcher’s private office was unavailable for comment, and when contacted by The Mail on Sunday Sir Malcolm Ross declined to comment.
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