Election '97 : Thatcher goes back to the wilderness

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The theme of Baroness Thatcher's walkabout in Teesside yesterday was practically Biblical, mosaic. Tory miracles: the desert seeded, sprouting multiplex cinemas, fitness centres, marinas, bingo halls and universities.

Nearly 10 years ago, Margaret Thatcher strode, face clamped in a frown, across the rubble and scrub of Teesside's urban dereliction. Yesterday she returned to the site - where once dandelions blew about and the unlawfully tipped rubbish festered, rows of twee, red brick, gable-ended Eighties- style buildings have sprung up.

The Teesside Development Corporation site, claimed to be the biggest redevelopment site in Europe, is Lady Thatcher's promise redeemed. "This is where I stood 10 years ago," she said as if remembering vividly. "It's been transformed! Totally transformed!"

As an attempt to draw the press pack's attention away from ministerial dissent on Europe, it was a bold one - and almost selfless on Lady Thatcher's part, given her own passionate hostility to Europe.

There was a half-hearted attempt at the start of the day to keep her involvement in the proceedings secret. At the morning press conference, John Major said coyly: "I have to catch a plane to go to Teesside for something I hope you will find more than usually interesting." The truth, however, was out of the bag almost at once, chased vainly by Tory press officers. "I'm telling you that we are not allowed to give a definite confirmation for security reasons," one said. "Her people will pull her."

Lady Thatcher remained unpulled, however, and the event billed as "Lady Thatcher's Walk In The Wilderness, now a walk in the Teesside Development Corporation" went ahead as scheduled. For Teesside is an important, indeed a desperate, Tory front line.

To the north is the Lake of Red ,which covers all of industrial Tyne and Tees, including the constituencies of Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool) and Tony Blair (Sedgefield). To the south are the very different realities of rural North Yorkshire. Teesside was decimated in the recession of the early Eighties When I visited Hartlepool, one of the bleakest spots in the region, five years ago, it was noted principally for monstrous unemployment and hard drinking.

However, Teesside is visibly a changed place and the development corporation set up after Mrs Thatcher's visit (and due to be wound up later this year) demands much of the credit.

With the media penned behind industrial-strength barriers, a BBC helicopter circling overhead and a cavalcade of Range-Rovers and Jaguars, it was a visitation worthy of a living legend - only slightly spoiled by a Mirror van trucking back and forth on a nearby road pumping out the Labour campaign song.

It was, in fact, a painfully artificial event: the Prime Minister and the former prime minister padding down the road smiling, waving, pressing local Tory flesh. They then unveiled a plaque and shovelled some dirt over an already planted and blossoming cherry tree.

Lady Thatcher was mute as she has never been mute before. Besides gasping over the transformation her walkabout had set in train, and waving to invisible crowds hovering in the air, her part was a walk-on.

"Mr Major, why don't you sack these foolish ministers?" one reporter asked repeatedly as Lady Thatcher stood, lips pursed, by his side. "Lady Thatcher would have sacked them!" Mr Major mustered an old fashioned look - as if to say, "try that once more and she'll bite your ear off".