LONDON (AP) — British lawmakers returned early from an Easter recess Wednesday to pay tribute to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, as preparations got underway for a funeral filled with military ceremony — and security headaches.
Prime Minister David Cameron led praise for Thatcher during a special session of the House of Commons, recalled after the ex-leader’s death on Monday at the age of 87.
Remembering the late premier as “incredibly formidable in argument but incredibly kind in private,” Cameron offered up a mixture of anecdotes and praise for Thatcher’s “remarkable” career.
“Let this be her epitaph: That she made our country great again,” Cameron told a packed room of lawmakers.
The special sessions at the House of Commons are usual for former premiers, but are generally brief. More than seven hours has been set aside for Thatcher, a reflection of her status as one of Britain’s most iconic political figures — and one whose legacy still sparks furious debate.
Amid the tributes, some opposition Labour Party lawmakers are likely to bring up the negative effects of her free-market economic policies — unemployment, shuttered industries, frayed social bonds.
Opposition leader Ed Miliband was the first Labour Party lawmaker to give tribute, saying that Thatcher was “the prime minister who defined her age.”
He said he disagreed with much of what she did but regarded her as “a unique and towering figure.”
Several left-wing legislators have said they will skip the session, including former housing minister John Healey, who said Thatcher’s “legacy is too bitter to warrant this claim to national mourning.”
Division over Thatcher’s record has spilled over into debate about the public expense of her April 17 funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral, which will be attended by Queen Elizabeth II and dignitaries from around the world.
The only other funeral of a prime minister that the queen has attended was that of Britain’s World War II leader, Winston Churchill, in 1965.
Thatcher’s son, Mark, said he knows the late premier “would be greatly honored as well as humbled” by the queen’s presence at her funeral.
He added that his family had “quite simply been overwhelmed by messages of support” and condolence following his mother’s death.
Thatcher’s family is paying some of the cost of the funeral, which will see the former leader mourned with full military honors, but a portion will be paid by the state.
Taxpayers also will pick up the tab for lawmakers who have had to cut short vacations to attend Wednesday’s session. They can claim expenses of up to 3,700 pounds ($5,750) for the journey.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said it was right to commemorate “a leader of historic proportions in our country’s history.”
He told the BBC: “I think we can afford to contribute to a funeral.”
Thousands of people are expected to gather to see Thatcher’s coffin taken from Parliament to the cathedral next week, part of the way by hearse and then on a horse-drawn gun carriage.
Hundreds of soldiers, sailors and air force personnel will line the route and form a guard of honor, and the coffin will be carried into the domed cathedral by members of units that fought in the 1982 Falklands War, Thatcher’s high-risk military triumph. Military bands and artillery salutes will also form part of the carefully choreographed ceremony.
Police and security officials are planning for potential disruption from anti-Thatcher protesters — who may stage celebrations during the funeral — or attacks by Irish Republican Army dissidents.
Irish militants killed several Thatcher allies during her 1979-1990 premiership, and in 1984 set off a bomb in the Grand Hotel in Brighton during a Conservative Party conference. Thatcher escaped injury, but five people died.