Thatcher’s ghost, Major gains
The ghosts of Margaret Thatcher past and future are very much present in the leadership contest for the Conservative Party leadership. It has been said that both candidates are invoking, even imitating, the ‘Iron Lady’ as they campaign to be our next Prime Minister. Just today, Rishi Sunak’s team apparently mocked Liz Truss’ U-turn on public sector pay with “the lady is for turning”.
The focus on Thatcher is understandable given the selectorate who will decide who wins. There is a very positive collective memory among Conservative Party members around Thatcher’s period in office — after all, under her leadership the Conservatives won three general elections (and Britain won a war) — and research by Professor Tim Bale has shown that the membership is notably more right-wing on economic issues (Tory MPs are even more so).
Both Truss and Sunak will also want to draw a line under the past three years and differentiate themselves from current Prime Minister Boris Johnson who has himself not been immune from reviving Thatcherite policies and positions — the extension of Right to Buy is a case in point (David Cameron was keen on that too).
Given that another key theme of the hustings is the extent to which the candidates have what it takes to convince the wider public of their merits and win a general election, let’s pause to consider the appeal of Thatcherism then, and now.
MORI polls at the end of the 1980s found, according to Ivor Crewe* writing in 1993, that Britain was perceived to resemble the Thatcherite idea but it was “a long way from the British people’s ideal”. On balance, people preferred not to embrace Thatcherite ideals and “edged away” from pro-tax cuts positions, anti-trade unionism or supportive of privatisation.
Sunak and Truss have both claimed to be Thatcherite by, respectively, proposing fiscal discipline to tackle inflation and tax cuts to stimulate growth. This is possible because Thatcher was in power for so long and did both these things (although not at the same time). Victoria Honeyman, associate professor of British politics at the University of Leeds recently said about Thatcher’s time in office “You can basically cherry-pick what you want.”
There was also some nuance to the version of Thatcherism the public favoured — an Ipsos MORI poll in 2013 found 74% disagreed with her bald statement that “there is no such thing as society”, but 63% agreed with the longer excerpt.
At the time of her resignation in November 1990, 52% of the public said that they thought her government had been good for the country and 40% that it had been bad. But 60% said they disliked her and only 39% liked her. Her style was abrasive but she was more pragmatic than given credit, spotting opportunities to go with the grain of social and demographic trends. She was able to build ‘convincers’ which signalled an ability to get things done including, again, ‘Right to Buy’, something remembered by Red Wall voters as recently as in 2019–20 according to Deborah Mattinson.
And now? The electorate holds a head-spinning mix of views — sometimes favouring one side of the political spectrum, sometimes the other, and sometimes splitting down the middle — and neither prefer a party that promises increased public spending nor one that stands for cutting taxes.
Britons are pretty pragmatic, as well as being extremely pessimistic. It’s important to do the right thing at the right time (and do it quickly), something articulated by Sunak when introducing the furlough scheme which, he said, involved “put[ting] aside ideology and orthodoxy” (it’s Truss who’s now challenging orthodoxy).
Character and delivery matter to people and are intertwined. Ipsos recently found the public identifying ‘an honest person’ as the most important character trait of a good Prime Minister, followed closely by understanding the problems facing Britain — undoubtedly, a reaction to the Johnson years. His Government ‘got Brexit (deal) done’ after years of gridlock, and oversaw vaccination, talked a lot about levelling-up, but beyond that?
Looking back at the polls during the Thatcher period, perhaps the most telling lesson for today’s leadership candidates relates to John Major who replaced her in late 1990. According to Crewe’s reading of the polls, voters believed there had been a change of government, not just a change of Prime Minister, and went on believing this until the 1992 general election. Worryingly for today’s Conservatives, Ipsos recently found Britons more sure that a fresh start will come under a Labour government than a Conservative one, but that could change.
Ironically given the narrative about Thatcher, it is perhaps John Major who was the pathfinder. He won in 1992 despite the economy being mired in recession but with sufficient glimmers of hope that, in a tight contest, a vote for the Conservatives felt like a safer bet to millions.
Of course, neither Truss nor Sunak can credibly stand on a Major ‘ticket’ in front of Tory members and win, but something more centrist would be electorally more appealing. To survive, the Government needs a change in substance as well as style, to deliver on a plan which leans forwards not backwards.
*Britain at the Polls 1992, Anthony King et al (1993)