Nine years after she was removed from office, former prime minister Margaret Thatcher still dominates British headlines. While many despise her, there is still a considerable number who believe she represents everything that was once great about Britain. Last week she swept into the seaside resort of Blackpool on England's northwest coast, where the opposition Conservative Party was holding its annual conference, and whipped up the party faithful with well-practised rhetoric. A local cinema suspended screening of the slasher movie The Haunting for a night so she could address a packed audience who had come to hear her first speech to a party conference since she left office. Dressed in her trademark blue suit with a lacquered helmet of blonde hair and a string of pearls, she displayed all the confidence you would expect from the only prime minister this century to have won three successive elections. The party leader, William Hague, was said to be nervous about what she might say, given her tendency to not toe the party line these days. The issue that led the Lady Thatcher to break her nine years' self-imposed conference silence was a wish to speak in defence of former Chilean president General Augusto Pinochet. Since his arrest almost a year ago, Lady Thatcher has been the most outspoken critic of the government's decision to proceed with extradition proceedings based on 35 charges of torture during his period in office. Lady Thatcher believes that in view of the help Chile gave Britain during the 1982 Falklands war Britain is indebted to Pinochet and should set aside the normal legal obligations requiring him to go before a court. But as well as endorsing the former dictator lady Thatcher also explained her views on the state of the nation, saying all its problems were a result of its links with Europe. 'My friends, we are quite the best country in Europe,' she said. 'In my lifetime all our problems have come from mainland Europe and all the solutions have come from the English speaking nations across the world which have fought to keep liberty alive.' Such eccentric views drew applause from those who came to hear her speak but have caused embarrassment to many others in the party. The next day shadow Conservative ministers tried to explain that her views on Europe referred to the two World Wars earlier this century, and attempted to downplay her xenophobic opinions. But her successor, John Major, was more frank and said her view that nothing good came out of Europe was 'plainly silly'. Lady Thatcher's opinions all but dominated the media coverage of the conference and eclipsed Mr Hague's attempt to set a new agenda for his party. The Conservatives could be fighting an election in less than two years and desperately need to persuade the electorate they are a serious alternative to the ruling Labour government. Many in the opposition party fear that while the Iron Lady's appearance can be guaranteed to raise the spirits of those already committed to the Conservatives, it is unlikely to win support from those who decided to abandon the party at the last election in 1997. Baroness Thatcher's reputation has ensured her retirement is more comfortable than that enjoyed by other British prime ministers. She received a GBP2 million (about HK$25.6 million) advance for her two volumes of memoirs, and reportedly can demand more than GBP10,000 on the US and Asian lecture circuits. On the international scene she is probably better known than any other British political figure and even out of office is still sought out by dignitaries visiting Britain. An active member of the Former Heads of Government Club, she particularly enjoys the company of Singapore Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, whom she often refers to when speaking about Asia. But even when she maintains a discrete silence on policy, Lady Thatcher finds it hard to stay clear of controversy. This week Mr Major's memoirs are due to be published and according to extracts already syndicated in the media he does not hold his punches when it comes to describing his predecessor. Mr Major says her private view of Europe is closer to that of Basil Fawlty than that of an enlightened modern politician. He says her feelings can best be summed up as 'never trust the Germans' and she was suspicious of any policies recommended by Britain's continental partners. Although he supported Baroness Thatcher throughout her time in power Mr Major's book says that in private he became increasingly uneasy at her autocratic approach. Long after she has relinquished any formal office Baroness Thatcher looks set to continue to loom large over the country's political landscape.