‘She defined her age’: Miliband and Cameron unite to praise Thatcher

All three party leaders united to praise the legacy of Margaret Thatcher today, as MPs returned to the Commons to mark the passing of one of Britain's most influential prime ministers.

The opposition benches were half empty while the government benches were packed, in a sign of the divisions the former Tory leader still causes.

"In a week from now, as people gather in London to lay Margaret Thatcher to rest, the sun will be rising over the Falklands," David Cameron said.

"And because of her courage, and the skill, bravery and sacrifice of our armed forces – it will rise again for freedom.

"She certainly did not shy from the fight – and that led to arguments, to conflict, yes: even to division.

"But what is remarkable, looking back now, is how many of those arguments are no longer arguments at all."

He added: "They say that cometh the hour, cometh the man.

"Well in 1979 came the hour, and came The Lady."

Ed Miliband, who had hoped his MPs would maintain a respectful tone in their contributions to the debate, tempered a glowing tribute with some stark criticism of her policies, particularly in relation to gay rights, apartheid and the destruction of manufacturing communities in the north.

"You can disagree with Margaret Thatcher but it is important to understand the kind of political leader she was," he said.

"What was unusual was that she sought to be rooted in people's daily lives, but she also believed that ideology mattered.

"Not for her the contempt sometimes heaped on ideas and new thinking in political life.

"Nobody can grasp Margaret Thatcher's achievements, and Thatcherism, without also appreciating the ideas that were its foundation."

Nick Clegg said he admired the former prime minister even though he violently disagreed with her statement that 'there is no such thing as society'.

"I never for a second thought she was being cynical or she was striking a pose or taking a position for short-term effect," he said.

"You always knew with Margaret Thatcher she always believed what she said."

In an emotional intervention, Norman Tebbit said he regretted how having to care for his wife meant he was unable to accept Thatcher's invitation for him to return to government.

"I left her at the mercy of her friends," he said pointedly.

"That I do regret."

In a sign of the lengths which parliament still needs to go before it achieves gender equality, it was one hour and 53 minutes before a female MP – Cheryl Gillan – rose to speak.

Several Labour MPs boycotted the recall of the Commons today, citing the financial cost of the exercise and concerns around the use of the occasion for party political purposes.

Many argued MPs could have held the debate next Monday without having to pay travel expenses for parliamentarians to return to Westminster from across the world.

David Winnick said: "Those who support her have spoken and will continue to speak in this debate.

"I believe those of us who strongly disagree with the policies pursued by Lady Thatcher should make our views clear today. It's political not personal.

"What was done under her premiership was highly damaging and caused immense pain and suffering to ordinary people."

Fellow left-wing Labour MP Michael Meacher read from very critical letter by a constituent, which ended: "I hope that my views will be represented in parliament today."

He added: "Lady Thatcher will undoubtedly be remembered as a leader of great conviction but greatness in my view has to be tempered with generosity and magnanimity if one is to earn a permanent place in the heart of this nation."

Labour MP Diane Abbott said: "There were many people up and down the country who felt themselves to be on the wrong side of the titanic battles in which she thought.

"This House should not give the appearance that their voice cannot be heard.

"Those of us who came of age in the Thatcher era know there was another side to the glories which the members on the other benches have been talking about."

The critical comments were heard in respectful silence by the Tory benches, as were the gushing tributes from their side of the House.

But there were cries of 'shame' when Labour's Glenda Jackson ended her speech by saying: "A woman? Not on my terms".

Conservative MP Tony Baldry complained to the Speaker that she had been allowed to "denigrate the memory" of Thatcher, but John Bercow dismissed his appeal.

Former housing and Treasury minister John Healey boycotted the session, along with Labour MPs John Mann and Ronnie Campbell and Respect MP George Galloway.

Speaking on the Today programme, Campbell said he would rather be in a "torture chamber" than attend the session.

"If all we're going to do is heap praise on Margaret Thatcher we could have done that next week," he said.

It is only the 15th time parliament has been recalled in 32 years. The last time came just two years ago after the summer riots which hit English cities in 2011.