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Saturday, October 10, 1998 Published at 17:16 GMT 18:16 UK

UK Politics

The handbag of history

From the start in 1979 the left hand carried the handbag

One of Lady Thatcher's most famous, yet most ordinary possessions may be preserved forever.

Wherever the former prime minister went during her years of power, her handbag was there operating at the heart of government for over a decade and seeing action in many of the world's major crises.

It could even be spotted this week in semi-retirement at the Tory party conference.

[ image: Trips abroad saw a more streamlined version]
Trips abroad saw a more streamlined version
Now it is being reported that one of Lady Thatcher's famous handbags will be preserved forever, alongside papers chronicling the former leader's time in power.

The Daily Telegraph newspaper reports that negotiations have begun to ensure one is stored in the Churchill Archives Centre at Cambridge.

As its name suggests, the centre at Churchill College, Cambridge, already stores the massive collection of the wartime prime minister.

The archive does not completely comprise papers, but there is no indication on its Website that any of Sir Winston's briefcases or wallets are kept on the centre's shelves.

And since many women carry one, why is Lady Thatcher's handbag held in such high regard?

[ image: Even an arm injury did not stop the bag's presence]
Even an arm injury did not stop the bag's presence
Of course as the first women incumbent of Number 10 Downing Street, she was the only prime minister to carry one.

And if you look at the historic photographs of her time in power, it was usually there.

It may have been a large black leather model on the home front or an apparently more streamlined version during trips abroad.

But it could be seen rejoicing at the recapture of the Falklands or battling with its mistress to hang on to power in the dark days of 1990.

[ image: At the bitter end in 1990 the bag is clutched closely]
At the bitter end in 1990 the bag is clutched closely
We may never know exactly what was in it, apart from the usual accessories any woman carries.

However it was not the contents but the way it was carried - and used - that gave the bag its place in history.

It even helped add a new political meaning to the verb, "handbagging" now used to describe a female politician's attack on a male opponent - or colleague.

There is no evidence that Neil Kinnock - or Michael Heseltine for that matter - ever received a physical blow from the weapon.

But they will surely admit in their most private moments to feeling the full force of a good handbagging on numerous occasions.

And while it cannot claim credit for any general elections victories - or win the Falklands War or the Miners Strike - the reputation it helped forge may have helped in those bitter struggles.

[ image: Out of sight - but out of mind? The 1997 Tory conference]
Out of sight - but out of mind? The 1997 Tory conference
So that is perhaps why a serious historical collection is considering storing such an ordinary prime ministerial accessory.

Indeed the legend lives on.

Only last week at the conference Lady Thatcher's predecessor Sir Edward Heath may have felt its presence as he sat behind it on the Tory conference stage.

And on the fringe of the annual gathering Thatcherite Michael Portillo used the image to attack Tony Blair.

"Often he dreams that he's a rock guitarist and surrounds himself with the idols of his youth," Mr Portillo said.

"But at conference time he believes himself to be Mrs Thatcher. I would not be surprised to find one of her famous blue suits and outsize handbags in Mr Blair's dressing room."

Now if that were really the case, then it would be yet more evidence that the Iron Lady changed politics for good.

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