Page last updated at 21:01 GMT, Monday, 29 September 2008 22:01 UK

Thatcher 'is greatest Tory hero'

Margaret Thatcher in 1980
Margaret Thatcher remains a controversial figure

Lady Thatcher is the greatest Tory hero of all time, according to a straw poll of party activists and MPs.

The former prime minister beat Sir Winston Churchill by 97 votes to 53 in a vote at a conference fringe meeting.

A survey of Tory MPs was much closer, with Lady Thatcher on 48 votes - one more than Churchill. Eight Tory MPs voted for current leader David Cameron.

Mr Cameron did not take part but reportedly said he would have picked Robert Peel as he was a reformer.

The Conservatives are one of the oldest political parties in the world and their history is filled with illustrious names.

So it was no surprise that the question of who is their greatest hero generated passionate debate at a fringe event organised by The Guardian newspaper - particularly as three members of the panel had served under Lady Thatcher.

Tory MP John Whittingdale, who worked with Lady Thatcher in No 10, volunteered to make the case for her as the greatest Tory hero.

'Conviction politician'

He acknowledged she was still a "controversial" figure but he said her place in history was assured as the most successful leader in recent Tory history and the first woman prime minister.

And the economic changes she brought about during her 11 years in Downing Street, such as the privatisation of industry and council house sales, still dominated British politics.

He also hailed her personal courage in standing up to the IRA and facing down critics.

Margaret Thatcher did for British Politics what Dame Edna Everage did for Australian comedy - she was the housewife superstar
Michael Gove

"She will always be remembered as the original conviction politician, someone who would not give in to blackmail or political pressure."

On the world stage, she helped bring about the end of communism, through her alliance with US President Ronald Reagan, and her decision to allow US cruise missiles on British soil, which made the USSR realise they could not win the Cold War, argued Mr Whittingdale.

"Margaret Thatcher did not just change Britain in a way which is permanent, she also changed the world and for that reason she is entitled to be the greatest Tory hero."

The panel agreed that Lady Thatcher was not a great orator and did not have a great sense of humour.

'Monty Python'

Mr Whittingdale recalled the "surreal" moment when he had to show her a video of Monty Python's dead parrot sketch and try to explain why it was funny, ahead of it being mentioned in a party conference speech.

He recalled that she was still puzzled by the reference as she was about to go on stage, turning to Mr Whittingdale and saying: "Monty Python - are you sure he is one of us?"

Lord Baker, who served as her education secretary, said Lady Thatcher was not really "sympatico with ordinary people".

But he said those who worked with her during her time in government realised "we were associated with greatness".

Lord Baker made the case for Winston Churchill, hailing his political judgement, in realising the threat posed by Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, and for his general love of his country.

'Political X Factor'

Shadow universities secretary David Willetts made the case for Benjamin Disraeli, who served in government for three decades in the 19th Century, twice as prime minister, who he said did not change the world but did change the Tory party.

"The only way Margaret Thatcher could possibly have considered joining the Conservative Party was because of the way Disraeli changed it. The party that we all support today is a party that is above all his creation."

Shadow schools minister Michael Gove delivered a spirited speech on behalf of Edmund Burke, the 18th Century statesman and philosopher, dismissing all the other contenders as "celebrities" - the "sorts of people you would expect to see on a political X Factor".

Disraeli was "flashy, ringleted novelist" a "sort of Victorian Jeffrey Archer" and he said: "Margaret Thatcher did for British politics what Dame Edna Everage did for Australian comedy - she was the housewife superstar."

Burke, who was never prime minister, and began his career as a Whig, was best known for his support for the American colonies in the dispute with King George III and Britain that led to the American Revolution.

Mr Gove said his life and career showed "the triumph of ideas matters much more than personal aggrandisement".

He laid the foundations of modern "liberal conservatism" by championing free trade and fighting protectionism, argued Mr Gove.

He also fought the centralisation of power and "bullying", what Mr Gove called the "Gordon Brown-isation of our political life".

Mr Cameron did not vote - but had said he would have backed Robert Peel because he was a reformer, according to panel chairman, the Guardian journalist Michael White.

In a similar exercise at last week's Labour conference, activists voted Keir Hardie their hero, while MPs opted for former prime minister Clement Attlee.

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