A lightning visit that nearly stole leader's thunder

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Indy Politics

The finger wagged, the handbag twitched, the eyes glowered. When Baroness Thatcher swept into Bournemouth yesterday, it was as if she had never been away.

The finger wagged, the handbag twitched, the eyes glowered. When Baroness Thatcher swept into Bournemouth yesterday, it was as if she had never been away.

Offering a vivid flashback of her reign as Prime Minister, the Tories' most famous pensioner arrived at the conference to accuse Tony Blair of perpetrating an "outright fraud" on the nation's greying population.

Having indicated early support for Mr Blair only to see him turn out to be a closet social democrat, Lady Thatcher may well have been referring to her own experience at the hands of the Labour leader.

What quickly became clear, however, was that she was speaking for all the other little old ladies who felt conned by the Prime Minister's record. "This Government has put a means test on old age pensions, so that thousands and thousands of people who paid contributions all their lives are not getting their pension," she said, her contempt barely concealed.

"That to me is outright fraud. That which you have contributed, you should get when you retire, not have it taken away - that is what Labour is like." Baroness Castle of Blackburn, eat your heart out.

In what has become something of an annual tradition, Lady Thatcher seized her chance to speak out as William Hague and his wife, Ffion, formally welcomed her and Sir Denis to the conference.

Clearly wary of John "Two Jags" Prescott's embarrassing car ride last year, Mr and Mrs Hague walked the 300 yards from the Highcliff Hotel. The Baroness had no such qualms; she was chauffeured down the hill in her Jaguar before being greeted by a slightly nervous looking Leader of the Opposition. Mr Hague posed for the cameras and was all ready to glide noiselessly in without taking any questions. After last year's virtual takeover of the conference with her speech on General Pinochet, this visit was meant to be low key.

Unfortunately for the fixers, Lady Thatcher couldn't resistthe chance to handbag Mr Blair on pensions. Mr Hague's smile froze as she lurched forward to address the media, her finger wagging furiously. "As a young MP, I was a junior minister for pensions and National Insurance," she said. "The money people paid into their pensions they got out in their pensions in their old age. Not now."

Lady Thatcher was ushered gently inside. However, once in the hall she was given a lengthy standing ovation from the faithful. Denied the chance to speak, she simply nodded and bowed slowly like a geisha.

The brief tour ended with lunch at the Highcliff with William and Ffion, again surrounded by cameras. Sir Archie Hamilton and John Whittingdale, each her former parliamentary private secretary, and Sir Tim Bell, the advertising guru she knighted, acted as "minders" to ensure she didn't wander off to the fringe.

Instead of the two days she spent at last year's conference, she had spent five hours. Millbank would have been proud.

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