What Theresa May has learnt from Margaret Thatcher

Measured against Jeremy Corbyn, the prime minister can claim to occupy the centre

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stands in a British tank during a visit to British forces in  Germany. on Sept. 17, 1986. (AP Photo/Jockel Fink)

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stands in a British tank during a visit to British forces in Germany. on Sept. 17, 1986. (AP Photo/Jockel Fink)

 

The most powerful word in politics, one of Margaret Thatcher’s campaign advisers once told me, is “moderate”. How was it then that she kept on winning elections? The Lady bore many descriptions but moderate was not usually among them. Easy. These things are relative. Under Michael Foot’s leadership the Labour party had rushed off to the distant fringes of the far left. Thatcher could redraw the boundaries of politics’ centre ground.

Something similar is happening under Theresa May’s Tory leadership. There is nothing centrist about the prime minister’s Brexit election campaign. It owes more to English nationalism than to moderation. Thatcher demanded her money back from Brussels; Mrs May, only last year a Remainer, now promises to reclaim every ounce of the nation’s sovereignty.

Even to suggest that Britain might, say, join Norway in the European Economic Area in order to keep access to the single market is treated as something akin to treachery. Nor is there anything soothing about the prime minister’s views about immigration. The campaign message is clear: wave the Union Jack or be counted on the side of the foreigners.

Yet measure this against the prospectus of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, and of his sidekick and shadow chancellor John McDonnell and the picture changes. To imagine Mr Corbyn in 10 Downing Street is to bestow on Mrs May the mantle of common sense. On balance, British voters do not judge Fidel Castro’s Cuba to be a success story that Britain should emulate. They prefer the Union Jack to the hammer and sickle waved by Mr Corbyn’s supporters. Labour has some popular policies and there are parts of the country where Tories still draw considerable hostility. But in fabled Middle Britain Labour has claimed the extremist tag.

Mr Corbyn has allowed Mrs May to reunite the forces of the right. That is what happened in last week’s local elections, when voters who had formerly backed the United Kingdom Independence party returned in droves to the Tory fold. Ukip now looks spent as a political force except in so far as it also offers a home to working class voters disenfranchised by Mr Corbyn’s metropolitan socialism.

Transpose the local results to the general election on June 8 and Mrs May is sure of a majority of about 50 in the House of Commons. Many Labour MPs are far more pessimistic. Mr Corbyn, they report, is “toxic” on the doorstep and the party’s platform empty of credibility. A collapse in support in the Midlands and across northern England looks particularly alarming. When the Conservatives choose the mayors of the West Midlands and Tees valley, something big is happening.

The mood among the party’s MPs is one of fatalism. As far as I can tell, most of those who class themselves moderates are simply fighting the election with their fingers crossed. The first hope is that the party loses by a bad enough margin to force Mr Corbyn to step down; the second that the margin is not so large as to consign it, and them, to oblivion. You can hardly call this a strategy.

The Socialists in France were gripped by the same paralysis, prompting Emmanuel Macron to jump ship and create his En Marche! movement. His daring seems set to take him to the Elysee. Labour moderates — Blairites, Brownites, call them what you will — show no such resolve.

They are haunted by the split in 1981 that saw the creation of the Social Democratic party, and by a first-past-the-post electoral system that punishes third parties. At some point they may not have a choice. Benoît Hamon, the Socialist candidate, secured just 6.3 per cent in the first round of the French presidential contest.

The more immediate question is what Mrs May intends to do with her expected majority. The optimistic view is that, secure in her own mandate, the prime minister will head back towards the pragmatic centre, not least in negotiating a settlement with Brussels. Some of her ministers are no longer so sure. Once released the demons of nationalism may not be easily tamed.

Philip Stephens is chief political commentator with the FT

FT Service

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