LONDON (AP) – Margaret Thatcher turned 80 Thursday with a rare return to the limelight – a posh party attended by the queen and the former prime minister’s two successors, all celebrating Britain’s “Iron Lady.”

Although she has grown frail following a series of small strokes, Thatcher looked healthy as she arrived at the party about 15 minutes late – a delay that an aide said was due to her taking a congratulatory phone call from President Bush.

Wearing a navy blue coat and dress, a string of pearls and – as always – a matching handbag that was her trademark, she smiled and paused for photographs before slowly making her way into the plush Mandarin Oriental Hotel near London’s Hyde Park.

Earlier in the day, her assistant Gilly Penrose said Thatcher was feeling good about her milestone birthday.

“Her house is looking like a florist’s and she’s very much enjoying it,” Penrose said. “She’s very philosophical about (her age), because she’s very active still.”

Heading the high-powered guest list were Queen Elizabeth II, and her husband, Prince Philip; Prime Minister Tony Blair; and Sir John Major, Thatcher’s immediate successor at No. 10 Downing St.

Thatcher has become more reclusive in recent years and given up most public speaking on her doctors’ advice, but she remains a powerful force 15 years after leaving office as Britain’s first female prime minister.

Her free-market philosophy, push to privatize state industries and hard-nosed battles with labor unions remade Britain’s economic landscape.

Even Blair, whose Labour Party languished in opposition while the Conservative Thatcher held power for more than a decade, has adopted many of her views.

“What (Winston) Churchill did in wartime, Margaret Thatcher did in peacetime,” outgoing Tory leader Michael Howard said in a birthday tribute. “Her political will and her iron courage saw off the threats to our way of life that Britain faced in 1979. We all owe her an enormous debt.”

Among the more than 600 guests invited to the party were many members of Thatcher’s Cabinets and two current candidates for the Conservative Party leadership, David Davis and Liam Fox, Penrose said.

The other Tory contenders, front-runner David Cameron and Kenneth Clarke, were not asked to go, prompting speculation that Thatcher was quietly taking sides in the race to head the party. Penrose said Thatcher did not intend the guest list as a comment on which candidate she preferred.

The queen shook Thatcher’s hand on arrival.

Another guest, actress Joan Collins, said she adored Thatcher.

“She is the Iron Lady, and I want to be just like that when I grow up,” Collins said.

Caspar Weinberger, former President Ronald Reagan’s defense secretary, was the most prominent American invited.

Her twin children, Sir Mark and Carol Thatcher, were present. Mark Thatcher pleaded guilty in South Africa last year to unwittingly helping to bankroll a failed coup in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, in West Africa.

Also invited were composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber, writer Frederick Forsyth and best-selling novelist and Tory peer Jeffrey Archer, who spent two years in jail for perjury and obstructing justice.

Missing was former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev – of whom Thatcher once commented “we can do business together” – but he was scheduled to meet her during a London visit next week.

Britain had faced high unemployment and labor unrest through the “Winter of Discontent,” in 1978 and ‘79, when strikes kept the dead from being buried and the garbage from being collected.

With her forceful personality and bouffant hairdo, Thatcher dominated British politics for much of the following decade.

Her hard-driving style earned her the “Iron Lady” nickname while she held office from 1979 until 1990, when the badly divided Conservatives rebelled and pushed her from power. Since then, the party has struggled to regain its footing. While Major eked out a victory in the 1992 vote, the Tories have lost three straight elections to Blair’s Labour Party and gone through three leaders since then.

“The greatest tribute people pay these days is ‘Come back Maggie,”‘ her former press secretary Sir Bernard Ingham said.

Both friends and political foes alike paid tribute to Thatcher on Thursday.

Cecil Parkinson, a one-time Conservative chairman, recalled being impressed by a speech the future prime minister gave on taxes at the party’s 1965 conference.

“Ten years later, when she became the leader of the Conservative Party, the late James Callaghan (then Labour prime minister) was quoted as saying “We have just won the next election,”‘ Parkinson said. “He could not believe that a woman leader of the Conservative Party would beat him.”

Thatcher’s Tories routed Callaghan at the polls in 1979, and she became the country’s first female prime minister.

Tony Benn, one of the most outspoken lawmakers from the Labour Party’s left wing, also tipped his hat to Thatcher.

“Mrs. Thatcher said what she meant and meant what she said,” he said. “And did it. Although I thought the policies were catastrophic in terms of democracy, she did not do anything by deception.”

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