Dear Handbag: What is a Tory prime minister without a handbag?

Ruth Picardie, who died yesterday, age 33, wrote extensively and wittily on the features pages of `The Independent'. In October 1993 a TV documentary revealed to her what Thatcher had and Major lacked

Dear handbag,

So farewell then, trusted friend.

Your week has been chock-full of photo ops. You have starred in numerous newspaper headlines. Last night you appeared on Thatcher: The Downing Street Years. These are the poignant, dying embers of your career. But you will not be forgotten.

It is true - to quote another famous Lady, one created by Oscar Wilde - you were only a handbag. You didn't come from the house of Chanel but from British faithfuls, Aquascutum or Rayne. You were made not from ostrich or boa constrictor but from boring, basic cow. And you didn't respond to the whims of fashion. In the day, you were a black or navy structured bag with two handles. In the evening you were a small pochette in black velvet, silver or gold (Denis does like a bit of glitter, your owner confessed in 1986).

You were never a star, always one of a team. Even the black patent, the favourite, was frequently replaced. According to Cynthia Crawford, your owner's PA: "We always have half a dozen on the go. They get quite a bashing."

You also got a bashing from the press. You became a verb meaning to nag, to bully, to shout down, to sack. Last year the speaker of the Irish Dail banned the expression on the grounds that it was unparliamentary.

But, dear handbag, do not despair. You had many fans. A suitcase retailer from Bushey Heath bought you (the beige you) for pounds 2,000 at an auction for Capital Radio's Help a London Child. Your owner loved you deeply, even though she doesn't give you an index entry in her memoirs. Like Denis, you were a rock to her: mute and loyal. You were vital to her as a symbol, a constant reminder that the Thatcher revolution was, in the end, the good housekeeping learnt by a grocer's daughter. Your owner's voice got deeper, her policies tougher, but you remained, reminding the world that the boss was a lady.

You were, of course, a Freudian's dream. You were variously described as lethal (The Sun), loaded (Daily Mirror), long-range (The Independent) and steel-reinforced (Economist). Once, you were pump action (The Guardian).

But, like all handbags, you were also a big, scary vagina with teeth. The nation was obsessed by what was inside you. Never mind lipstick; at various times you were rumoured to contain: (a) the 1942 Beveridge report on social insurance; (b) the 1944 White Paper on Employment; and (c) Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Gettysburg Address. A handbag? You were the world's first political Tardis.

Without you, British political life is less vivid. John Major, like most British men, is fearful about the link between handbags and homosexuality. And so he is without a metaphor. Lady Thatcher herself, in a brave effort to prop up her successor's leadership, urged him to use a cricket bat at an EC summit. The metaphor did not take off. What is a politician without a metaphor? What is a prime minister without a handbag?

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