LONDON – One of Britain's iconic names is back, in bizarre circumstances tailor-made for the country's boisterous tabloids.
Sir Mark Thatcher — son of British political legend Margaret Thatcher (search), titled by inheritance, and wealthy through connections and marriage — is in trouble in a far-off land for allegedly bankrolling a bungled African coup attempt.
The story features oil interests, a dictator reported to harbor cannibalistic tendencies, mercenaries from elite private schools in Britain, a Lebanese immigrant tycoon and faint echoes of Britain's former colonial dominance. And the people are lapping it up — especially the front-pages photos of the white-haired, suited Thatcher being led away from his Cape Town (search) mansion by police.
"I wish my daughter could make what he's making," said David Ryan, a 50-year-old London letter carrier. "He made a fortune out of his mum's name. ... He's just got what he deserves."
Sir Mark — as the press invariably refers to him, sometimes with a touch of irony — is out on bail, but the press won't let go of a story about a man who many believe got rich by trading off the name of his mother, Britain's first female prime minister.
Newspapers have jumped on the chance to note that he was nicknamed "Thickie" as a child for his supposed lack of intelligence.
"The nasty man who has caused so much trouble for the woman he calls Mumsy" is how The Daily Express summed him up in a headline.
The papers bristle with reconstructions of how the coup plot was allegedly hatched in a London mansion by conspirators whose real goal, it is suggested, was less to depose a brutal dictator than to secure a position in oil dealings that would follow.
A total of 88 men are custody in the case in South Africa, Equatorial Guinea (search) and Zimbabwe (search). On Tuesday, an Equatorial Guinea court indefinitely suspended a trial of alleged mercenaries accused of being involved in the plot, saying it wanted more information on Thatcher and other international financiers.
Security and intelligence services in the countries foiled the purported plot in March as the accused men were allegedly moved into position for the takeover attempt. The regime they're accused of targeting is widely considered one of the world's most corrupt.
Equatorial Guinea wants Thatcher and his alleged co-conspirators extradited for allegedly plotting to overthrow Teodoro Obiang (search), the president for a quarter century of the tiny but oil-rich nation. Media reports have accused Obiang of cannibalism and torture, in addition to the theft of his nation's oil wealth.
Thatcher's lawyer says he's innocent and will cooperate with investigators, and most analysts say he is unlikely to be sent to Equatorial Guinea, where he might face the death penalty, which South Africa opposes.
Many of the alleged co-conspirators come from privileged backgrounds.
Simon Mann (search) — a graduate of the elite Eton private school, a British Special Forces operative and a longtime mercenary — was convicted last week in Zimbabwe for trying to illegally buy weapons from that country's state arms manufacturer.
Witnesses have also named Eli Calil (search), a British-Lebanese businessman who made fortunes in African oil deals and lives in London's exclusive Chelsea neighborhood.
But it's Thatcher's extraordinary re-emergence that has gripped the public, coming at a time when his mother is trying to leave the public stage.
Margaret Thatcher, who dominated British politics as prime minister from 1979 to 1990, said in 2002 that she was giving up speechmaking because she'd suffered a series of small strokes. She lost her husband, Denis, last year, and she appeared frail and emotional in June at the funeral of former President Reagan, a close friend.
Family spokesman Lord Bell said she was "obviously distressed about the fact [that Mark] appears to be in some difficulty," but was confident he'd be found innocent.
It's not exactly the first time Mark Thatcher has caused his mother concern.
He got lost in the Sahara desert for a week in 1982 when his car broke down during a race from Paris to Dakar, Senegal — a disappearance that prompted the notoriously tough prime minister to cry in public for the first time.
Later came a string of accusations about shady dealings in which he appeared to profit from his name and proximity to power.
The steady dribble of scandal was wearing.
When Mark Thatcher asked his mother's aide Bernard Ingham what he could do to help her win re-election in 1987, Ingham reportedly advised: "Leave the country."
Margaret Thatcher was also forced to answer questions in Parliament about her son's involvement in a British company's successful bid for a $600 million contract with a university in Oman just after she made an official visit there. She denied any conflict of interest, but her son moved out of the family's official Downing Street residence soon after.
Parliament also scrutinized reports in the early 1990s that said Mark Thatcher made $15 million as a middleman on a $25 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia a decade earlier. He was also reported to have been involved in arms sales to Iraq.
Then-Prime Minister John Major (search) denied requests for an inquiry and Mark Thatcher denied involvement in any weapons deals.
He moved to Dallas and married the daughter of a wealthy Texas auto dealer in 1987. The couple later moved to South Africa with their two children.
In America, Thatcher settled a civil racketeering lawsuit for an undisclosed sum and faced charges from the Internal Revenue Service stemming from a role with a home security company that went bankrupt.
None of the bad publicity prevented him from inheriting a baronetcy — and the title "Sir" — when his father died last year. That stemmed from Margaret Thatcher's unusual 1990 request to Queen Elizabeth II for the title of baronet for her husband.
Writing in The Sunday Times, columnist Minette Marin said the "wayward son [has] a title only because his mother asked the Queen [for] a distinction she must know he little deserves. ... I keep wondering rather guiltily why I am enjoying the whole thing so much [and I am assuming that most other people share my low tastes]."