Although Lady Thatcher remains a strong supporter of the decision to topple Saddam by invading Iraq, it is the first time she has questioned the basis for the war. Yesterday's Washington Post reported that when asked whether she would have invaded Iraq given the intelligence at the time, Lady Thatcher replied: "I was a scientist before I was a politician. And as a scientist I know you need facts, evidence and proof - and then you check, recheck and check again."
She added: "The fact was that there were no facts, there was no evidence, and there was no proof. As a politician the most serious decision you can take is to commit your armed services to war from which they may not return."
The article was written by the journalist Tina Brown, who said she had been told Lady Thatcher's view by Lord Palumbo, the former chairman of the Arts Council, who asked the former prime minister about Iraq when he had lunch with her six months ago. Lord Palumbo was also among the guests at last night's party at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel near Hyde Park, London. The guest list, which was headed by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, included many former members of Lady Thatcher's cabinets as well as prominent figures from industry, arts, showbusiness and the media.
The Tory leader Michael Howard and the two right-wing candidates for the leadership, David Davis and Liam Fox, were present but the two moderates - Ken Clarke and David Cameron - had not been invited.
Lady Thatcher's office did not dispute her reported remarks but said she had been - and remained - in full support of the decision to oust Saddam by military means, which she always believed would be the only way to remove him. Aides said she wished that had been achieved by the first Gulf War, prompted by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, which took place shortly after she was forced to resign as Prime Minister after losing the confidence of her cabinet.
Her criticism of Mr Blair's methods comes as a surprise given her staunch backing for the conflict. In 2002, on a visit to America, she said she was "proud that Britain stands where we all must stand - as America's surest and staunchest ally". She told the Heritage Foundation in Washington: "Prime Minister Blair and I are, as is well known, political opponents but, in this vital matter, I salute his strong, bold leadership."
Although Mr Blair condemned Saddam's record in the build-up to the war, he did not advocate "regime change" because that would have been illegal. Instead, he sought to build a case on the ground that Saddam's arsenal put him in breach of United Nations resolutions. After no weapons of mass destruction were found after the conflict, Mr Blair sought to justify it by arguing that the world is a better place without Saddam in power.
The continuing problems in Iraq were highlighted when Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, admitted that it could take up to 10 years to turn the country into a stable democracy. He told BBC2's Newsnight programme: "I am optimistic about Iraq. I think in five to 10 years we will see it becoming stable."
An ICM survey for the programme found that 31 per cent of people wanted British troops pulled out immediately, while 23 per cent believed a firm date should be set for withdrawal later. Some 40 per cent indicated they should stay until the Iraqi security forces were ready to take over.
Mr Straw told the Cabinet yesterday that, with a referendum on the Iraqi constitution taking place tomorrow, the political strategy for the country was "on track". He cited higher levels of voter registration than for the elections earlier this year.
The Foreign Secretary said that transforming a failed state into a successful democracy would always take time. It took four years to elect a national government in post-war Germany, but just two in Iraq.
Sir Menzies Campbell, foreign affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said Mr Straw's remarks about a 10-year period showed that the Government did not have a credible exit strategy. "None of this was ever put before parliament or the British people in March 2003 when military action commenced," he said.
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