Tony Blair calls Thatcher 'towering figure'

EASTON, Pennsylvania (AP) - Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair eulogised Margaret Thatcher as a "remarkable and towering figure" who will be missed on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Mr Blair spoke about his predecessor during a speech on Monday at Lafayette College in Easton. Mrs Thatcher died on Monday at age 87.

Even though Mr Blair disagreed with Mrs Thatcher politically, he said, she was a "great leader" who pursued her aims with fearlessness and determination.

Mr Blair recalled a time, early in his political career, when Mrs Thatcher got the better of him during an exchange in the British House of Commons, an episode he said that taught him "one of my earliest lessons in politics."

He had been given the privilege of asking the first question during the prime minister's weekly appearance in the chamber. At the time, Mr Blair's Labour Party was going after the Conservative Thatcher on Britain's high unemployment rate, and Mr Blair thought he had produced a "gotcha" question for the prime minister.

The young backbencher had run across a 1944 paper produced by the Conservative government of Winston Churchill that talked about the importance of obtaining full employment, "and I thought I would ask Margaret Thatcher about this. I was very pleased with my question, and I got up to a quiet House of Commons and I delivered it with what I thought was great aplomb," Mr Blair recalled.

He continued: "I don't know how she managed to do this, but somehow she had guessed someone would ask her about this 1944 white paper." Mrs Thatcher looked at Mr Blair, reached down to grab her handbag and pulled the paper out of the bag, Mr Blair said.

"She then proceeded to read parts of it that refuted everything I had said," he told his Pennsylvania audience, "and I got sat down to complete humiliation. It stayed with me a long time, that."

Mr Blair spoke about Mrs Thatcher at the beginning of his speech at Lafayette, given as part of the school's "Lives of Liberty" lecture series. He noted it was an appropriate designation for Mrs Thatcher.

"I don't think there's anyone who better expresses a sense of a life of promoting liberty than Margaret Thatcher," he said.