Two people are running to be the next British Prime Minister, but a third presence is closing in on the contest: Margaret Thatcher.
The late former prime minister dominated Britain in the 1980s and has left an important and controversial legacy. Critics see her as an uncompromising ideologue whose free-market policies broke social bonds and wrecked the country’s industrial communities. But for the Conservative Party government, Thatcher is an icon, an inspiration and the presiding spirit of Britain for the modern era.
In the race to replace Boris Johnson as Tory leader and prime minister, both Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and former Treasury chief Rishi Sunak claim to embody the values of Thatcher, who died in 2013 aged 87.
Wondered who was Britain’s greatest prime minister? Both candidates say without hesitation Thatcher. Sunak made a keynote speech in the late leader’s home town of Grantham, declaring himself a champion of “common sense Thatcherism”, while his wife and children took selfies in front of the bronze statue of the Lady of Iron
Truss talks about her own modest origins, inviting comparisons to the grocer’s daughter Thatcher, and adopts poses and outfits (bold blue dresses, pussy-bow blouses) that echo the distinctive style of the first female prime minister british
Historian Richard Vinen of King’s College London calls Truss an “Instagram Thatcher”. Victoria Honeyman, associate professor of British politics at the University of Leeds, says Thatcher is “a talisman” for the Tories. Robert Saunders, a historian of modern Britain at Queen Mary University of London, believes it has “become a creature of myth”. “Like Thor’s hammer, Thatcher’s purse can bestow godlike powers on those deemed worthy to lift it,” Saunders wrote on the Unherd website.
In one sense, Thatcher’s fixation is easily explained. She led the Conservatives to three successive electoral victories and was never defeated at the polls. She was eventually overthrown, like Johnson, by her own party, deposed in 1990 after 11 years in power.
“Every Conservative leader since Margaret Thatcher has failed,” said Vinen, author of the book “Thatcher’s Britain.” John Major lost the party’s power in 1997, and the three subsequent leaders kept the Conservatives in opposition. Prime Minister David Cameron pushed for a 2016 referendum that, against his wishes, took Britain out of the European Union. His successor, Theresa May, was defeated by Brexit infighting, and Conservative lawmakers have given Johnson the boot after months of ethics scandals.
Thatcher’s decade in power, through war and peace, boom and bust, also offers a rich selection for acolytes to choose from. She was a wartime leader who defeated Argentina over the Falkland Islands, a democrat who took on the Soviet Union and saw the Cold War end, a union-busting capitalist who unleashed power of the financial markets.
“You can basically pick whatever you want,” Honeyman said.
This selective memory is at work when today’s Tories, who are overwhelmingly pro-Brexit, say Thatcher would have supported the decision to leave the EU. Vinen says it is “almost sacrilegious” to point this out, but “Thatcher was really pro-European for most of her time in office”. Thatcher’s economic legacy is also being questioned. Truss and Sunak claim to offer Thatcherite economics, but their policies are very different. Truss says he will increase borrowing and cut taxes immediately to ease Britain’s cost of living crisis, while Sunak says it is vital to get the country’s rising inflation rate under control first.
Both can point to decisions Thatcher made in support of their positions, although Vinen believes Sunak’s anti-inflation approach is closer to Thatcher’s economically.
“She (didn’t) believe you could cut taxes unless you cut spending,” he said.
The new British leader will be elected by around 180,000 members of the Conservative Party, many of whom regard Thatcher as a heroine. Millions of other British voters remember her differently.
Thatcher privatized state-owned industries, sold off public housing and defeated Britain’s coal miners after a bitter year-long strike. Under his leadership, industries closed and millions lost their jobs, especially in the north of England.
Johnson, whose Conservative hero is Winston Churchill rather than Thatcher, scored a major election victory in 2019 by winning over voters.
in the post-industrial cities of northern England who had never before considered supporting the Tories.
Honeyman said Johnson’s successor would be wise not to praise Thatcher too loudly if they hope to hang on in these northern districts, where people still talk about the closing of factories and mines “and the impact that had on their communities, about the way it fractured people’s lives.” “This is not ancient history for some of these people,” he said. “This is their lived experience.” Those memories are not so vivid for Truss, 47, who was a teenager when Thatcher left office. Sunak, now 42, was just 10 years old in 1990.
But 84-year-old Tory veteran Norman Fowler, who served in the Thatcher government and was later speaker of the House of Lords, warned candidates not to “go overboard” with the cult of the Iron Lady.
“I was in his cabinet, shadow and real, for 15 years,” Fowler told Times Radio. “Even I wouldn’t say she was perfect in every way. And so the party doesn’t have to be completely modeled on her. So I would give her a break.”