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Open season as Thatcher handbag hits the target

Ascot week and Wimbledon have been followed by a new event in the social calendar, marked not by the thunder of hooves, nor by the pop of rackets, but by the thump of a handbag on ministerial heads. We are in the midst of Baroness Thatcher's social season.

The former prime minister's private office explained yesterday that it is this summer season which has brought that famous handbag back and swinging at a variety of targets in recent days.

Even some of her most ardent admirers, including the Defence Secretary, Michael Portillo, have been on the receiving of her verbal handbaggings.

Mr Portillo was attacked at a reception at the Imperial War Museum for his failure yesterday to join the ex-servicemen in representing Britain at the ceremony in France to mark the 80th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

Yesterday, Lady Thatcher was out of the country on a private visit. She is planning to go to Hong Kong for a few days, where she may well give China the benefit of her views on how best to handle the colony.

She launched her season with a handbagging of the Prime Minister, John Major, who stopped Tory MP Bill Cash from taking funds from Sir James Goldsmith for his Euro-sceptic activities. Lady Thatcher hit back by offering Mr Cash money from the Thatcher Foundation. Mr Major was so angry, he called her a "mad cow".

But her diet is not the problem. Her office yesterday had a simple explanation. "Summer is the time when invitations to drinks parties go out, and she meets a lot of interesting people in conversation about a number of things. It is nothing more sinister than that.

"You cannot expect her to stand there and say nothing."