IN RETROSPECT, it was a sure bet. If you have survived as the daughter of the most controversial prime minister of the 20th century, if you have shared a gene pool with a twin who attracts scandal like blood attracts sharks, if you have had your heart broken by Jonathan Aitken, then surviving 16 days in the Australian outback, sharing a pool with the assorted pond-life of I'm a Celebrity and coping with reptiles was never going to faze Carol Thatcher.
On Monday night the daughter of Baroness Thatcher achieved what some believe was her mother's ultimate ambition. She was crowned queen. Defying the odds, Carol Thatcher won the fifth series of ITV's reality show I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here, seeing off the ex-Emmerdale actress Sheree Murphy and former EastEnders star Sid Owen in a final watched by 13 million viewers.
It was an amazing turnaround in the fortunes of the 52-year-old journalist and author who had been as much of an underdog at the start of the series - she was a 33-1 outsider - as her mother had been in the Tory leadership contest of 1975. In the end she won the viewers round by sheer dint of personality. It was a combination of gumption, optimism, determination and experience which brought her the 50,000 prize. The publicity could net her a much bigger fortune in endorsements, advertising and broadcasting should she choose to cash in.
Friends say she could do with the money. She rents out her London flat and, although she was left 125,000 in her father's will, she has not had a full-time job since Max Hastings sacked her from the Daily Telegraph in 1986. Until recently, she lived with a 38 year-old ski instructor, Marco Grass, in Switzerland and she survives on her freelance earnings.
Thatcher's most testing jungle challenge involved eating kangaroo testicles. "Squelchy and grotty," was her verdict on the bush oysters, though she suggested they might be improved with balsamic vinegar. For a woman who has in the past bitten her tongue and swallowed her pride so often she could practically count the calories, the bush tucker challenge didn't present too much of a problem. "I was brought up to get on with it, you will not be surprised to hear," she said.
Her debut on the show was inauspicious. Having sky-dived into the camp, she spent the rest of the day throwing up. By the time she got to her hammock she was too ill to make it to the camp latrine. Forgetting that her every move would be captured on infrared camera, she did a Paula Radcliffe and relieved herself in front of ten million viewers. "I was extremely unwell and thought that rather than throw up over camp I'd go for a quick wee-stop in the jungle," she explained. She made enough of a recovery to upstage her fellow showbiz contestants, including Jimmy Osmond, with a rendition of See You Later Alligator.
I'm a Celebrity is the gladiatorial contest for our panem et circenses age. There is an irony more tasty than bush oysters in it being won by the offspring of a British prime minister. Her popularity led to the improbable headline "Vote Thatcher" in the Mirror. "You can imagine with my political upbringing, I've the greatest respect for voters," she said waspishly. But, while Carol was crowned Queen of the Jungle, her mother was languishing in the political wilderness back home.
There has always been an assumption that being her mother's daughter has blighted Carol Thatcher's life. She was just six when her mother became an MP. After studying law at University College, London she went into journalism, working for the Telegraph, LBC, TVAM and Radio Four's Loose Ends. Her career was hampered by her famous by-line. Bill Deedes, her editor at the Telegraph, says: "She was cut off by quite a bit of the press who wouldn't run anything with Carol Thatcher's by-line."
In recent years she has mainly confined herself to writing about skiing.
While there has been a rapprochement with her mother since her Downing Street years, they are not in close contact.
"She doesn't know I'm doing this," Thatcher said before she appeared on I'm a Celebrity. After she won, she rather artlessly revealed she did not know her mother's home telephone number. "I left my mother's phone number behind so I don't even know her number. She doesn't know I'm here, so she won't notice," she said. Payback, perhaps, for the fact that her mother revealed that she had not read Below the Parapet, Carol's acclaimed biography of her father Denis. It was this book and the associated television programme which transformed Sir Denis Thatcher in the national psyche from gin-drinking buffoon to national treasure.
Having set the record straight about her father, Thatcher is now rehabilitating her own reputation. According to Lord Bell, Margaret Thatcher's former PR guru, Carol's gutsy, jolly character on I'm a Celebrity is genuine. "She is being herself, not putting on an act," he says.
Until now, Thatcher's public persona has been largely defined by her mother and brother Mark, whose involvement in a coup to takeover Equatorial Guinea led to his house arrest in South Africa earlier this year and the subsequent break-up of his marriage. Carol's relationship with her brother, who is rumoured to have turned down a role in Celebrity Big Bother, has been non-existent in recent years. His phone-call to wish her well before she appeared on the show is the first contact they have had since he received a suspended prison sentence and a 265,000 fine in January.
She has made it clear that when it comes to mothering, Margaret Thatcher makes the Queen look like Maw Broon. When her mother recently complained that her children were absent from her life, Carol retorted that: "A mother cannot reasonably expect her grown-up children to boomerang back, gushing cosiness and make up for lost time. Absentee mum, then Gran in overdrive is not an equation that balances".
Carol and Mark Thatcher were born six weeks prematurely by Caesarean in August 1953 while their father was at a Test Match. Denis Thatcher's remark on seeing his offspring was, according to his daughter: "My god, they look like rabbits. Put them back." Dumpy and dull, she felt overshadowed by her more glamorous brother, whom she believed was always her mother's favourite. While her mother pursued her political career and Denis was involved in corporate life, Carol was raised by nannies and teachers at St Paul's boarding school.
When her mother became leader of the Tory party, Carol moved to Sydney and she credits her time spent in Australia with helping prepare her for her jungle ordeal. It was there that she first experienced the joys of independent travel. The only maternal affection Baroness Thatcher is publicly credited with showing her daughter is her infamous remark about Jonathan Aitken after he ditched a tearful Carol. Thatcher told cabinet colleagues that she was damned if she was going to give a job to a man "who had made Carol cry".
It was Denis to whom Carol turned when things went wrong and she shares much of her late father's sense of humour and self-deprecation. It is these qualities, along with her self-reliance, which helped her see off the younger, more glamorous but ultimately wimpish jungle bunnies such as Atomic Kitten's Jenny Frost and Neighbours actress Kimberley Davies. Thatcher's lack of vanity - she spent the entire show looking like something a dingo dragged in - contrasted well with the narcissism of the younger girls.
She has also benefited from the British public's love affair with eccentric middle-aged ladies, which saw the nation warm to previous contestants such as Christine Hamilton and Janet Street-Porter. It may even be that in I'm a Celebrity we witnessed not only Thatcher's bum, but also the death throes of our love affair with youth culture. "You need good shock absorbers to be the prime minister's child," Thatcher commented.
Baroness Thatcher may just be discovering that you need pretty resilient shock absorbers to be Carol Thatcher's mother. She has not only come out of the jungle, she has come out of the shadows.