Today’s breed of Tories probably more Thatcherite than those of her day

For many of them David Cameron is a pale imitation of the Iron Lady


In one of the ironies of history, perhaps, the Conservative benches that mourned Margaret Thatcher on Wednesday were probably more Thatcherite in the normally accepted understanding of that word than those that ever sat behind her during her time as prime minister. For many of them, David Cameron is a pale imitation of the Iron Lady; one, they feel, who is neither sufficiently ideological in his thinking, nor radical enough in his actions for their tastes, or those required by the times.

Thatcher, of course, was not always Thatcherite: she baulked at privatising the railways, for instance; while the destruction of much of the power of the trade unions was handled more gradually than many younger Conservatives, who were not around at the time, today understand. For them, the United Kingdom needs a new dose of their understanding of Thatcherism; where workers’ rights fall by the wayside, so that the industrious are rewarded and the feckless penalised, while a new rigour is forcibly permeated through society.

Unlike her acolytes of today, Thatcher understood that winning elections requires adding to bedrock support – in her case, the “white van” man attracted by council house sales and share-buys. Here, however, the new breed of Conservatives have so far failed to convince that their creed – one that offers very obvious risks to key voting groups, but with less than guaranteed prospects of reward – is one that can attract followers.

Converted by council house sales and other policies, Thatcher’s tribe during the 1980s are now in late middle-age, worried about their prospects in retirement and their children’s prospects in a world where the young can no longer automatically expect to live better than their elders.

On Wednesday, Cameron pointed out that few would try to reverse the changes made by Thatcher, regardless of what they think of the woman herself. She had been a politician “who made the weather”. The difficulty now for Cameron is whether the focus on Thatcher’s legacy will diminish his own performance, as illustrated by the taxi-driver who drove one MP to her home for a drink: “Tell ’er from me that we ain’t had a good ’un since.”

However, Cameron is more radicalising than many of his backbenchers believe, since the welfare reforms currently being introduced could fundamentally alter the shape of British society.

The education reforms in England under Michael Gove, leading to the creation of thousands of schools run independently of local authorities, goes further, too, than anything ever contemplated by Thatcher.

Equally, planning reforms designed to spur the construction of hundreds of thousands of new homes could change the face of England and Wales more radically than Thatcher’s dream of a home-owning democracy.

The latter reforms are riddled with a psychological incoherence at their heart, since, in parallel, the Conservatives favour greater “localism” – even if local communities rarely favour change on the scale being contemplated.

However, that incoherence could be said to mirror Thatcher’s own performance in office, one where she coupled a philosophical desire for small government with close micro-management of the issues in which she was interested. Thatcher’s early years in office defy the popular belief that she resolutely cut public spending at every turn.

In 1979, when she arrived in Downing Street, it stood at 45.1 per cent of gross domestic product. It dropped marginally in her first year, before climbing every year until mid-1983, when soaring unemployment welfare costs more than dwarfed the efforts being then made to cut public spending – an echo of Cameron’s fortunes today.

Having peaked in 1983 at 48.1 per cent of gross domestic product, it fell dramatically for the rest of her time in office – dropping to 39.2 per cent in 1989/90 but it kept in line with inflation because the UK had economic growth – an average of 4.7 per cent each year from 1984 to 1988.

Such growth rates, fuelled by the wasted bonanza that was North Sea oil, are those of which chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne once dreamed in the naive, early days in office after 2010, but no longer.

But, equally, the figures pose a challenge for the Thatcherites that now sit behind Cameron and Osborne, who favour similar falls in the state’s share of spending, but also real cuts in the actual level of spending. Under Cameron, the welfare benefits bill has jumped; while much of the cuts achieved to the deficit have flowed from sharp reductions to capital spending – proposals initially put forward by Labour as it readied to leave office, despite all of its talk now about stimulus-boosting spending.

Today, Cameron and Osborne are seeking partially to reverse some of the capital spending cutbacks, even if marginally so; though few in the Conservative ranks believe growth will magically now appear on the scale needed by the 2015 election.