Special report: They gave a Margaret Thatcher death party - but not many came

Police had been braced for trouble in Trafalgar Square, but a combination of rain, restraint, and a lack of anarchic fervour meant it passed off without major incident

They came, they drank champagne, they went home. Britain's most ardent Thatcher-haters had threatened a raucous celebration of the former prime minister's death when they met in Trafalgar Square last night. But the shortage of any real anarchic fervour – assisted by persistent drizzle – ensured the controversial event passed without the kind of civil unrest that had police on alert for days in advance.

They brought their alcohol –along with a 7ft effigy of Mrs T – to the scene of the totemic 1989 Poll Tax Riots, and they sang their protest songs, including "Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead". But, as the bulk of the students, anarchists and former miners trailed out of the square long before midnight, only nine had been arrested – and most of those were for drunkenness.

George Brown, 64, a former miner from Easington colliery, County Durham, said: "It's a cathartic moment, getting rid of the past. All of my family were affected. Hundreds were hit. The area disappeared completely. My friends wasted away. They spent their redundancy money and frittered away their lives. They had no hope. That's what she took away from us: hope."

Dave Douglas, a retired miner from Newcastle, said: "We're here to show that not everybody in this country is eulogising this particular woman, who represented everything reactionary, backward and evil."

The Metropolitan Police said they were prepared for "all eventualities" but hoped it would be a good-natured demonstration.

The generally festive atmosphere, and an attendance of around 1,000 people, was a testament to the enduring antagonism still felt by many towards a woman repeatedly described as "Britain's greatest peacetime prime minister". But the lack of significant aggro, despite the arrival of a bunch of Millwall FC fans on their way home from an FA Cup semi-final defeat, suggested that, perhaps, some of the naked hostility has ebbed away in the 23 years since Baroness Thatcher left office.

The absence of the rioting predicted by many will cheer those who fear that the ceremonial funeral, on Wednesday, could be disrupted by coordinated protests. Downing Street will quietly feel that the relative calm vindicates the approach the Prime Minister has taken over the week since Lady Thatcher's death was announced.

David Cameron has been fulsome in his praise of his predecessor, but careful to acknowledge that she had many detractors. The strategy is the result of repeated "war-gaming" over several years, when the Tory leadership combined planning for the funeral with assessments of the political difficulties Lady Thatcher's passing could present.

The plan to take the sting out of the hostility has worked, so far. But Mr Cameron is now faced with the problem of managing renewed pressure from his own MPs for a shift further to the right.

In the week when he will give a reading at Lady Thatcher's funeral, a number of Tory right-wingers have responded to the debate over his predecessor's achievements by calling on their leader to return to the "traditional Conservative values" she espoused. They plan to increase pressure on Mr Cameron to toughen up his approach to key issues including Europe and immigration, while jettisoning unpopular policies such as green energy and gay marriage.

"Mr Cameron is well aware of the passions that Baroness Thatcher's death can evoke," a Cameron ally said last night. "There has been some frustration from the right in recent years, particularly over the coalition. It is absolutely in line with our expectations that many people will respond to Mrs Thatcher's death by trying to make David more like the leader she was."

The Tory MP John Redwood, who was once Lady Thatcher's chief policy adviser, said: "The current Conservative leadership may find from this experience that they have to defend Conservative ideas in a new, more intense way for them. They may also find that correctly selected Conservative ideas can prove both successful in practice and popular when deployed."

Sir Gerald Howarth, who is chairman of the Conservative Way Forward group, set up to "promote and extend …. Thatcherite principles", said: "We are inhibited by the coalition, but the leadership will have seen the massive outpouring of support for Margaret Thatcher's ideals and we must not be held back by the Lib Dems. Mr Cameron has to resolve Europe and he has belatedly come to realise that immigration is a massive issue. Margaret Thatcher was a social conservative. We have got to drop gay marriage as it is not a traditional Conservative policy."

Lady Thatcher's daughter, Carol, yesterday predicted it would be a "tough and tearful week, even for the daughter of the Iron Lady". In her first public statement on her mother's death, she thanked people who had sent messages of sympathy and added: "My mother once said to me: 'Carol, I think my place in history is assured'. The magnificent tributes this week, the wonderful words of President Obama, and others of colleagues who once worked alongside her, have proved her right."

Lady Thatcher's 19-year-old granddaughter, Amanda, will give the first reading, from Ephesians.

What you think ...

Voters disagree with David Cameron's description of Margaret Thatcher as "the greatest British peacetime prime minister" by 41 per cent to 33 per cent, The Independent on Sunday's ComRes poll has found. Only in the 65-plus age group do more people agree that she was "the greatest" than disagree.

The poll confirms that public opinion is divided over her legacy, with 60 per cent opposed to taxpayer funding of her funeral.

Some of her policies still win approval – 52 per cent say she was "right to require trade unions to hold secret ballots before strikes" – but others fail to impress. Only 25 per cent agree that: "We received a better level of service from gas, electricity and telephone companies after privatisation", while 38 per cent disagree – but another 38 per cent don't know.

Public attitudes are not only polarised but apparently contradictory: most agreed she was "the most divisive prime minister this country has had", and that Britain needs more "conviction politicians" like her.

And more people agree than disagree that: "Overall, Margaret Thatcher's policies were right for the country at the time" (45 per cent to 34), but also that: "Margaret Thatcher's economic policies did more harm than good" (39 per cent to 25).

The three things for which she is most remembered are "curbing the power of trade unions or the miners' strike", named by 49 per cent; the Falklands War, 47 per cent; and the poll tax, 39. (Respondents could choose up to three from a list of 10.)

There is little evidence of a "Thatcher effect" on voting intention in the poll, which puts Labour's lead at eight points, down one point since last month. Labour are on 38 per cent; the Conservatives on 30 per cent; Ukip on 15 per cent, down two points from last month's record high; and the Lib Dems on 8 per cent.

John Rentoul

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