Gordon Brown has been accused by a Tory frontbencher of "exploiting" an elderly and forgetful woman by inviting Baroness Thatcher to Downing Street. The former Prime Minister's visit to her erstwhile home, which followed the recruitment of several prominent Tories to advise the Government, generated huge publicity and overshadowed the launch of a Conservative environment policy paper.
The Tory leadership has insisted it was relaxed about the invitation and pointed out that Lady Thatcher had met Tony Blair on previous occasions. But there was growing frustration within the party over Mr Brown's attempts to woo senior party figures.
Rob Wilson, the shadow higher education minister, said he recognised some "weak-minded colleagues" were fair game for Mr Brown, but felt very uneasy about her visit. "Baroness Thatcher at 81, we know she is frail, we know she is lonely and she does have difficulty – without going into too much detail – with her memory," he said. "I am simply asking the question: Do we think it is right that the Prime Minister should exploit Lady Thatcher in what could be described as a self-serving and unscrupulous way?"
He protested that the event had been a "carefully choreographed publicity stunt". Mr Wilson, the MP for Reading East, said: "He could have done this privately. There was no need to invite the press to be outside number 10. This was all about dog whistles to Conservative-minded voters to say 'Baroness Thatcher gives me her blessing, it's OK you can vote for Brown.'"
He said he was surprised that Lady Thatcher's advisers had approved her "being taken advantage of" by accepting the invitation.
Philip Davies, the MP for Shipley, said: "I think it's very sad Gordon Brown stooped to these depths to advance his partisan political interests. He claims to be the person who doesn't believe in spin and yet he cosies up to Lady Thatcher despite opposing everything she did when she was Prime Minister. It was a blatant PR exercise and it was so cynical that it is quite demeaning for him."
Mr Davies said: "She is a real patriot and if she thought she could genuinely help her country in any way she would do so."
A senior source close to Mr Brown said: "Mr Wilson's account of his meeting with Lady Thatcher was hurtful and unfair, and it did not match in any way with the Prime Minister's private meeting with her.
"No matter whether they agreed or disagreed with her policies, Lady Thatcher is respected by millions of people as a strong leader who still holds strong views on the future of the country. It is disappointing that Mr Wilson has chosen to denigrate her in this way and he should apologise."
A spokesman for Lady Thatcher said: "To suggest the Prime Minister exploited her is wrong. It was kind of him to invite her."
He insisted that she had been "fully aware" of the political ramifications of the meeting and said: "It was just one Prime Minister courteously inviting another Prime Minister."
The MPs John Bercow and Patrick Mercer, Lord Stevens of Kirkwhelpington, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and Johan Eliasch, the former Tory deputy treasurer, are among well-known Tories who have accepted invitations from Mr Brown to advise on policy.
David Cameron said: "If this is a genuine attempt to involve experts then it is a good thing. If it is low politics it's a bad thing."
Gordon on Maggie
* From the Prime Minister Gordon Brown's 1989 book Where There is Greed: Margaret Thatcher and the Betrayal of Britain's Future:
"Britain's first woman prime minister has done conspicuously little for Britain's women." "Britain can no longer survive, far less prosper, on the simplicities of Margaret Thatcher's capitalism."
"Poverty does not concern Mrs Thatcher."
"Mrs Thatcher ... wanted to eliminate the public sector entirely from whole areas of national life."
"The Thatcher government has not only failed to prepare our economy for the 1990s but failed to advance our quality of life in the 1980s."
* From 1987:
"She plans to eradicate the right to education and the health and social services as we know them."
"As support for Mrs Thatcher's policies of social division dwindles she will discover that there are simply not enough City speculators without a conscience to keep her in power."
* 4 September 2007, press conference:
"I also admire the fact that she is a conviction politician ... I am a conviction politician like her."
"I think Lady Thatcher saw the need for change."Reuse content