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The BBC's Ben Brown
"Lady Thatcher is still playing a starring role in this election"
 real 56k

Friday, 1 June, 2001, 17:16 GMT 18:16 UK
Thatcher still has 'it'
Thatcher
Thatcher: "We are a nice, small island"
Nick Assinder

Her greatest days may be behind her and she may now qualify for a winter heating allowance.

But for many voters Margaret Thatcher is still the "It" girl of British politics.

Exactly what "It" is remains unclear. It may be that indefinable quality charisma, or it could be sheer force of personality - alternatively seen as an ability to intimidate with a single stare.

But whatever it is she has still got it.

'Silly man'

And, as she hit the campaign trail in Romsey and Eastleigh, she was putting it out in bucket loads.

It was local 14-year-old Frank Fleisher who put it best as he joined the throng mobbing Maggie in a giant Sainsbury's supermarket in Eastleigh.

"You are too young to know who she is," I suggested.

Without blinking he replied: "Everyone knows who she is." He was polite enough not to add: "You silly man," but I got the message.

Lady Thatcher was in this part of the country, where the Liberal Democrats now hold sway, in an attempt to bolster William Hague's apparently beached election campaign.

Thatcher
Off home for an apple sandwich?
The fact that the Tory leader is eager to have his troublesome predecessor out on the stump speaks volumes about the state of his campaign.

He knows she will say things that either flatly contradict party policy - such as declaring she would never join the euro - or that will embarrass him - such as suggesting Labour may win a second landslide.

But he doesn't care.

A decade after she left power she is still a huge draw and Hague needs to play every card he has got in the pack.

Her day in Romsey, won in a sensational by-election victory by Lib Dem Sandra Gidley, started with the fallout from a Daily Telegraph article still dominating the day's agenda.

labour poster
Hague: A new man on Labour's campaign poster
She wrote that a second Labour landslide would turn Britain into an elective dictatorship. She also poured scorn on Tony Blair for turning the government into a personality cult.

What fazed many observers was that this came from the most potent political personality since the war, bar Winston Churchill, and the leader who openly admits to having quite liked winning big majorities.

That was swiftly brushed aside as she moved onto her favourite territory and the one William Hague says he wants to dominate the election campaign - Europe.

Why was she so opposed to the euro, she was asked. "It would be dreadful," she replied. "Look at all the old folk and all the confusion there would be."

'Good apples'

And her scepticism towards all things European extended to her shopping trip to Sainsbury's.

She bought four items - two packs of English butter, a loaf of Sainsbury's own bread and a bag of apples - presumably she intended to make apple sandwiches when she got home.

"Are they good English apples, not French," I asked, fully expecting to be cut off at the knees.

"Yes, Cox's Pippins. They are very, very good. The French produce very good apples too and we take some of theirs, they should take some of ours."

It wasn't until she got to the checkout that I noticed the apples were labelled "produce from New Zealand".

"Well, New Zealand is a nice small island in their part of the world, and we are a nice, small island in this part of the world," she replied.

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