Thatcher support divides Tories

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BARONESS THATCHER'S call to free General Pinochet threw William Hague's Tory leadership into confusion, but appeared to have united Tory backbench MPs behind her.

For some right-wing MPs, it was just like the old days at the Commons to have "Mother" back with her finger on their pulse, being nasty to the Argies.

Lady Thatcher's letter to The Times on Wednesday cast a diplomatic cloud over the visit by President Menem of Argentina next week, but reinforced the Tory view that the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands should be kept off the agenda.

Julian Brazier, ex-army Tory MP for Canterbury, said: "Lady Thatcher was absolutely right. She is the most important retired statesman in this country. As so very often, she is able to focus people on the real issue.

"Pinochet is an unattractive man, but the Chileans are trying to bury their past. We should not tear up our relationships when it suits us."

David Curry, the former Agriculture Minister who resigned from Mr Hague's front bench over Europe, said he had marked yesterday in his diary as the day he agreed with Lady Thatcher. "She is right on this. For once, she has reunited the party."

David Wilshire, Tory MP for Spelthorne, welcomed Lady Thatcher's intervention. "I'm delighted that somebody has spoken out and opened up the debate so that we can examine the Blair government's incompetence and double standards in all this," he said.

Mr Blair was happy to "cosy up" to left-wing dictators in during his recent visit to China. he added.

But there was widespread criticism of the Tory leadership's handling of affair as - not for the first time - Lady Thatcher made her own party leader look limp-wristed.

Peter Lilley, the deputy Tory leader, caused his own MPs excruciating embarrassment in an interview on BBC radio when he refused to say whether he supported her or not. "Mrs Thatcher made a very pertinent point from her own experience," was as far as he would go.

His performance was so bad that Tory party sources disowned Mr Lilley, saying they had not suggested he should go on to the programme, and that he was responsible for volunteering to answer for the Opposition on the issue.

Mr Hague was later forced to issue his own statement, but like Mr Lilley, it avoided giving direct support to either Lady Thatcher or General Pinochet.

The Tories may be concerned about how supporting General Pinochet will play with the public and their supporters in the country.

Aidan Rankin, secretary of a Conservatives for Human Rights group to be launched on Monday, said Tories should stop being "apologists for a bloodthirsty dictator".

"I am horrified that prominent Conservatives are speaking out in support of General Pinochet," he said. "If the Conservative party is to appeal to a wider electorate in the next century, it needs to change tack fundamentally and rediscover its support for human rights, and economic and social justice."

He named a number of Tory MPs who will line up with his organisation, but some of them yesterday were backing Lady Thatcher.