Page last updated at 08:04 GMT, Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Thatcher relives Bruges heyday

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Baroness Thatcher is welcomed by fellow Conservatives

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

She may no longer make speeches, on doctor's orders, but there is no keeping Lady Thatcher away from her public.

From the moment she clambered shakily from the back seat of a black Jaguar, on to the forecourt of the Grosvenor House Hotel, London, this was going to be her night.

Lady Thatcher
Lady Thatcher arriving at the Bruges speech 20th anniversary dinner

At 83, and reportedly suffering from dementia, she makes few public appearances these days.

But this was a special occasion - the 20th anniversary dinner of the Bruges Group, which takes its name from a speech in which she first warned against the creation of a European "super state".

She is still recognisable from her prime ministerial heyday. The extraordinary sweep of back-combed hair is still there - as is the famous handbag - but she is clearly very frail.

She walks with tiny, deliberate steps, all her effort seemingly concentrated on getting from A to B.

But she managed to summon up a hint of the old steel, as she paused at the hotel entrance for the photographers, shooting them a determined glare of the type that once reduced Cabinet ministers - and Brussels bureaucrats - to jelly.

And instead of being shepherded past the crowd of admirers in the bar on her way to the top table, she was thrust straight into the middle of them.

They could hardly believe their good fortune.

"How many times in your life, do you get to meet a legend? She will be remembered for hundreds of years," said Nikki Sinclaire, a UKIP Euro election candidate.

"She is the reason I got involved in politics."

'My heroine'

These are Thatcher's people - true believers who had paid upwards of 125 each for the opportunity to have dinner in her presence, including several current Tory MPs, the novelist Frederick Forsyth and the UKIP leader Nigel Farage.

And for a good half hour she walked among them, steadily working the room as her minders battled to keep the pin-striped throng at bay.

How many times in your life, do you get to meet a legend? She will be remembered for hundreds of years
Nikki Sinclaire, UKIP Euro election candidate

At times, the crowd threatened to overwhelm her, as they held up their camera phones to film her progress and pushed forward with outstretched hands, always deferential, but eager for just a few seconds with the former prime minister.

"You are my heroine," said one woman.

"You inspired me," said another, reaching out to grasp her fragile hand, "we need more like you".

Ms Sinclaire explained that she was standing for the UK Independence Party in the West Midlands.

"Good for you. Never give up, never give up," Lady Thatcher told her.

Then, unexpectedly, as she pushed further into the crowd, I found myself face-to-face with her.

Dementia claims

"It's an honour to meet you," I said, shaking her hand and, for reasons which now escape me, adding: "I come from the North East."

She seemed delighted.

"Thank you for coming down. Give them my warm regards," she said.

I did not have time to explain that, on this occasion, I had only come down from North London, but it did not seem to matter.

She seemed much sharper than I had expected.

Her daughter, Carol, recently wrote about her battle with dementia and that on bad days "she can hardly remember the beginning of a sentence by the time she got to the end".

There was little sign of that here.

"I think she gets a bad press about how bad her condition is. She comes to visit us and talks to people for hours without any trouble and of course the pensioners love her," said Susan Smith, of the Chelsea Pensioners' Appeal, one of Lady Thatcher's charities.

Vocal support

She appeared to be flagging a little by the time dinner was over and the speeches were under way.

She was seated at the top table, next to her old comrade in arms Lord Tebbitt, who gave a speech calling for a referendum on Britain's relationship with the EU - and a move towards an alliance of sovereign states, of the kind first outlined by Lady Thatcher in her Bruges speech.

It was typically red-blooded stuff, with much scorn poured on the "euro fanatics" in his own party and their "fellow travellers" in the civil service and the BBC, which went down a storm with the die-hard Euro sceptics in the audience.

But the night belonged to Lady Thatcher.

The sense of betrayal many of her supporters felt 18 years ago at the way she was ejected from Downing Street is evidently still raw among members of the Bruges Group.

As she reached the end of her final procession through tables of applauding admirers, pausing at the top of the stairs for a farewell wave, a chant went up from the back of the room which summed up the night perfectly and - if she heard it - will have left her with a smile on her face.

"Ten more years! Ten more years! Ten more years!"




SEE ALSO
Thatcher dementia fight revealed
24 Aug 08 |  UK Politics
Brown welcomes Thatcher to No 10
13 Sep 07 |  UK Politics

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