It was to be his big moment. But hours before the start of Iain Duncan Smith's spring conference came a sound his predecessors learnt to dread – the unmistakable clanking of the Iron Lady.
Mr Duncan Smith had been planning to announce the end of an era – albeit in a different way – at his party's gathering in Harrogate yesterday. Buoyed by recent polls, showing the first dent in Labour's stranglehold on the public's affections, the Tory leader was keen to talk about his new agenda – public services a priority, the party of the vulnerable, the renewal of One Nation Conservatism, Tony Blair's "squandered inheritance", a new pledge to "trust the people".
But there she was again. Even in announcing her voice would hitherto be silent, the Lady was making it heard as only she knows how.
Mr Duncan Smith's speech today will draw heavily on his visit to Glasgow and the traditionally Labour-voting Easterhouse estate, which shaped his ambition to establish the Tories as the party of the vulnerable. He will blame Labour for failing those people by pursuing "politics that hurts" and accuse them of being a Government that has "had so much and done so little". The speech, building on recent Tory statements in support of public services reform, will also call for more control to be handed to people to do their jobs and live their lives. "It marks a fundamental difference between us and Labour," he will say.
But Mr Duncan Smith should have talked to John Major and William Hague before his relaunch. They would have warned him it might not be easy. For they too, as Tory leaders, have had to put up with "Mother" – and so would he.
On the conference fringes, Mr Duncan Smith's aides tried to keep the two things separate. The new leader would mention Lady Thatcher in his speech today to "pay tribute to the contribution she has made to the country". But they stressed: "Iain sees this as a personal, human set-back. He doesn't see it as a political thing. He was taken aback at the suggestion that the announcement was in any way linked to events here."
His flock were not so sure. "It could be a coincidence but you tend to be a bit sceptical," said Jean Holland from Morecambe and Lunesdale. "I was a great supporter when she was Prime Minister but since then I have felt that some of her pronouncements and the timing of them have been somewhat vindictive. I am rather disappointed in the way she has behaved since she lost the leadership."
Younger members of the party also feel it is time the apron strings were cut. Simon Hawkins, 22, said: "She's right to consider winding down. She's had her moment. She needs to let Iain Duncan Smith get on with it."
The people who run the party accept they cannot sever ties with Thatcherism. Her shadow still hangs over them, 12 years after she left Downing Street. Many in the party still lament her departure. Bill Brewis, a councillor from the Vale of York, added: "I am still a very strong supporter of Margaret Thatcher. She said everything I believe in, especially in relation to Europe. She will be badly missed."
So is it a case of "thank you and goodnight", as one shadow minister rather uncharitably put it last week? A party spokesman said: "There is no break with the past. There is the unfinished business of Thatcherism and a lot of that was to do with some of the things we are doing now."
Perhaps the Iron Lady, as she predicted, will go on and on and on.Reuse content