Maastricht: Thatcher 'bags' the attention of her peers

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Indy Politics
IT WAS not a handbagging session. She had left it behind. The Upper House may have been packed for the first time since Tuesday, but those who thought Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven would embark on an outright suicide mission were to be cruelly disappointed.

There had been mild laughter during questions over why taxpayers should now be called 'customers' by the Inland Revenue. Lord Hailsham struggled to his feet to announce that the Roman Empire had privatised its system. Lady Thatcher (she will eschew the title Baroness) sat impassively next to him, downwind from the Government bench.

This is the spot, roughly similar to Sir Edward Heath's in the Commons, supposedly reserved for former prime ministers but which Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home never occupied, allegedly because the former Lord Chancellor decided he would not move along. Evidently changing his mind now, the resultant crush for seats meant that Lord Thorneycroft, sacked by the Iron Lady in the other place, was again perilously near the edge.

Perched at the end of the bench behind, was another friend-cum-foe, Lord Howe of Aberavon.

Behind Lady Thatcher sat an old lady using an earpiece to listen to the proceedings, the 89-year-old Baroness Elliot of Harwood. The former prime minister is unlikely to take a leaf out of the book of the balding baroness, a scrupulous attender who never speaks. But peering round at the walking sticks (four on her bench, including Lord Hailsham's two), the spectacles and the magnifying glasses, the hairless heads, the double chins resting on slumbering chests, Lady Thatcher may have wondered whether vying for Sir Edward's seat might have been better.

In a place where dressing down is depressingly de rigueur, her white-trimmed navy suit and diamond brooch were distinctly racy. Not everyone awoke when she began to speak, and the Baroness Elliott put down her listening device. Contrary to the assertion of Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, the Europhile leader of the Liberal Democrats, there was no 'breathless hush' as he fairly urged her to break the convention that maiden speeches should be short and uncontroversial.

But there was a frisson of excitement as Lord Jenkins declared: 'We would much rather she was herself.'

Lady Thatcher dutifully invoked the excesses of the late Earl Stockton and Lord Wilson of Rievaulx. Baroness Elliot tuned in as she defended her role in the passing of the Single European Act. After 13 minutes she was at her revolving-eyed best, stepping forward, jabbing with her glasses. The noble Lords laughed as she declared of her EC budget battles: 'I always found the most effective weapon was 'no'.'

Twenty-seven minutes later, Lord Callaghan of Cardiff recalled Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream - 'I will aggravate my voice and roar you as gently as any sucking dove' - concluding that the newly ennobled Lady had decided her new colleagues would always concede to persuasion but never to coercion. But, by then, numbers of noble Lords had decided the show was over, missing the set-piece response to a meticulously executed rehearsal for the suspected dramas to come.

(Photograph omitted)

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