Tories must learn the lady is for turning to their advantage
The crowds flocking to see the terracotta warriors at the British Museum’s blockbuster exhibition pay tribute to the power of the first emperor of China. A tyrant who put his country on the road to greatness, Ying Zheng has always divided opinion in his homeland. Mao Tse-tung, the communist dictator, who sent the last emperor to a camp for “re-education”, adopted the first as his exemplar because Ying was a real leader, a ruthless man of conviction.
In like manner Gordon Brown had round to No 10 Lady Thatcher, the Tory dragon empress, last week to spend the afternoon with our austere first couple. Brown used to loathe everything she stood for and it is not for the fragile old lady’s conversation that he courts her. The symbolism was the important thing: one leader of conviction salutes another. Lightweight David Cameron was out of step with his party’s greatest living figure. Tory modernisers’ cheeks were coloured as shocking pink with embarrassment as Thatcher’s suit.
Brown is also keen to show that he makes the political weather. His mantra of “change” implies that he is not leading some fagend Blairite government but is truly making a break with the past. And who better exemplifies a restless crusade to transform the country than the Iron Lady?
By paying court to Thatcher the prime minister is seen to be making good on his promise to consult widely: “a listening prime minister” in the cant phrase. The day before, Lord Owen, the former Social Democratic party leader and a fractious partner of the Liberals, was also in No 10. Owen approves of the return to cabinet government under Brown and thinks he could become “a better man as prime minister”. But he urged Brown to keep Labour’s European referendum promise and didn’t discuss jobs. Still, a neat coup on the eve of the Lib-Democrat conference.
What with wooing of Lib Dems and disaffected Tory MPs Mr Big Tent Brown is doing a good job of destabilising both opposition parties.
Brown’s tea date has highlighted a growing problem for Cameron. How do you solve a problem like Maggie if you are Conservative leader? Even in her twilight she is too powerful a presence to ignore. If you spite her you inflame the Tory faithful and invite the charge of base ingratitude to Britain’s 1980s saviour. Yet follow too slavishly and you are accused of lurching to the right and alienating the Maggie-hating classes. Cameron surely knows that her contempt for John Major, her successor, helped to break him. All later Tory leaders have quailed before her.
Cameron has placed as much distance between her and his modernising project as possible, reflecting his belief that Britain must face the ills of a broken society. A speech on Conservative philosophy by Oliver Letwin, the policy chief, earlier this year created the unfortunate impression that the Tory focus on economic achievements could now be discarded in favour of a wholesale concentration on social issues - just in time for the mortgage crisis. Bad luck, guys.
Since the death of Ronald Reagan, Thatcher has also become the greatest symbol of conservative hope to the American Republican party. Under the auspices of the Atlantic Bridge, the think tank of Liam Fox, the shadow defence secretary, Rudolph Giuliani, the Republican frontrunner and mayor of New York during 9/11, is making a pilgrimage to London on Wednesday just to get his picture taken with her. Senator Fred Thompson, another hopeful, has been here too.
In courting the lady, Brown is following in Tony Blair’s footsteps. As a cheerleader for the Anglo-American alliance, Blair invited the comparisons between her advocacy of western military intervention abroad to right wrongs and his own determination to get his friend President Clinton to stand up to Serbia. His later partnership with President Bush had echoes, too, of Thatcher’s demand for the first Gulf war against Saddam Hussein.
Although it works for Labour, if Cameron were to abandon his vote-win-ning journey to the centre by belatedly adopting the Thatcher mantle, he would invite derision. For decades the Conservative party has been seen in poll after focus group as the nasty party, with no vision for the public services. This is Thatcher’s legacy. William Hague was damaged by association with her. Above all, Cameron cannot be seen to be opportunistically shifting from left to right and back again according to the prevailing wind. Brown’s charge that he is a lightweight “prisoner of factions” is potentially deadly. His greatest weakness is that people are not clear what he stands for. It is an unconventional mix and he has not yet defined which bits will be dominant.
That a party leader should have uncomfortable relations with a predecessor is hardly unknown. Churchill was always worried whether Anthony Eden, his Tory successor, was up to the job. Alastair Campbell’s diaries reveal how furious Neil Kinnock became when Tony Blair began to modernise his party: “At one point he picked up a kettle filled of newly boiled water which I feared was heading my way.” One of Kinnock’s main complaints was Blair’s praise of Thatcher’s radicalism. “Radical my arse. That woman f****** killed people,” he raged.
Blair solved his ex-leader problem by employing charm and cunning. Cleverly he flattered Kinnock for being the original moderniser: everything that worried Kinnock about new Labour was inspired by him.
Cameron, perhaps, cannot be so publicly effusive but he can at least try to detach more reasonable Thatcherites from those who would rather take him out in a suicide mission than see him win for the Tories.
What the Thatcherites in his party most want is for Cameron to stop dissing her. One loyalist I met recently bubbled over with fury at Cameron’s condemnation of her seemingly heartless statement “there is no such thing as society”, since her following phrase reflected on the roles of individual men and women and their families. Another Thatcherite sniffs that the Iron Lady has invited Cameron to tea twice and has been refused both times.
There are complaints at Conservative Central Office that diplomacy is not the new regime’s forte. If Cameron can’t afford to hymn the Iron Lady’s praises in public, then he might at least let it be known quietly that he has seen her and learnt something. Then the message of the Cameroons should ring out: “Maggie was the solution to the British economic crisis of the 1980s. We are the solution to today’s new problems.” But that would mean stopping pretending that she doesn’t exist.
Even so, any reminder of Thatcher poses hard questions for Cameron. What sort of party are you? What sort of leader are you? What do I stand to gain from a Tory victory? Brown is all too willing to offer to answer them all negatively. Cameron can show his leadership qualities by refusing to flap over policy. He needs to work a lot harder on party management, a balance of tender loving care and firmness. There are a lot of ruffled egos.
As for the third question, in the 1980s the aspirational working class, homeowners and City slickers knew what they stood to win from Thatcher’s victory. Cameron won’t find votes in taxes on air travel and journeys by car to supermarkets. Yet the differences can be exaggerated. Scratch most of the Tory modernisers - George Osborne, Michael Gove - and you will find a Thatcherite underneath. As one of the sons of Thatcherism myself, I used to mull over the future of the party late into the night with a young Cameron and I can assure you, he’s no red.
Cameron should refine and amplify the Thatcher of the mind. After all, it was her scientific background that led to her becoming the first major politician to accept climate change. Perhaps Cameron in his next speech should praise her green credentials. And then at party conference he could cheekily outflank her on the right in one regard.
After all, wasn’t it Nigel Lawson, Thatcher’s chancellor, who helped to undermine the tax advantages of marriage? We’ve tried that one, he should say, and it was a mistake. We’re now going to fix the broken society. The lady, who always believed that family was all, could hardly disapprove.