Thatcher basks in show of sympathy: Patricia Wynn Davies and Colin Brown report from the Bournemouth conference

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The Independent Online
TORY party leaders yesterday used a carefully stage-managed show of sympathy for Baroness Thatcher among rank-and-file Conservative supporters to prevent the annual conference in Bournemouth being marred by allegations of 'sleaze' surrounding her son, Mark.

Jeremy Hanley, the Conservative Party chairman, went to great lengths to praise Lady Thatcher's world statesmanship when the former Prime Minister paid a flying visit to the conference. 'She will be seen world-wide as one of the leading figures of the 20th century, whoever writes the history books. We cannot thank her enough for her commitment to us here today,' Mr Hanley said.

While grass roots representatives were angry the conference had been overshadowed by an event occurring long before John Major took office, most of the criticism was reserved for the Sunday Times for re-igniting stale allegations as a deliberate wrecking move. Nick Gibb, who fought the recent Rotherham by-election for the Conservatives, said: 'I think it is a coincidence that all this business has arisen now. It's media hype. These allegations have been around for a long time. How come they surface again now? Why not two months ago, or three weeks ago?

'It's a deliberate attempt to damage our conference, just when things are coming right. There has been an inquiry and that found no case to answer. Is there something new? I doubt there is.'

Some representatives were clearly uneasy that Mr Major's 'honourable' reputation had been tainted: 'It looks dodgy because it was about arms and it's a lot of money,' Nicholas Archer, from Battersea, south London, said.

But while Lady Thatcher was described as 'long out of office', few were inclined to censure her, and most appeared to support the Government's 'keep your head down' stance.

It was a 'no win' situation for the Government, Mr Archer said. 'If you don't comment you fuel speculation. If you do comment the media speculate about what you meant.'

Ian Harris, from Epsom & Ewell, said: 'Everyone should have the right to do the best for themselves. Nick Scott's daughter (Victoria Scott, daughter of the former minister for disabled people) did a lot of work with disabled groups. It was nothing to do with him.'

Nor did most delegates believe that blame should be attached to Mark Thatcher. 'You're innocent until proved guilty,' was the common refrain.

Lady Thatcher told a private luncheon that Mr Hanley's remarks had helped to 'redress' the distress she had felt over the past few days. However, some Cabinet ministers privately said they were uneasy about the allegations, and shared the views of critics that the Tory party needs to tackle its 'sleazy' image.

Mr Major had a private meeting with Lady Thatcher at the conference hotel, before she was driven the few hundred yards to the conference centre. They appeared together on the conference platform, but avoided facing questions together in the conference area.

Later, Lady Thatcher faced a barrage of questions from reporters about her son's alleged 'kick- backs' from the Saudi arms contracts, but refused to elaborate on her statement on Monday denying any impropriety about the deal.

Conference reports, pages 6 & 7

(Photograph omitted)