Nick Clegg: why I admire Margaret Thatcher

Liberal Democrat leader risks alienating the left of his party in attempt to woo Tory voters.

The Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, has expressed his admiration for Margaret Thatcher and aligned himself with traditionally Conservative economic liberalism.

In an interview with the Spectator magazine, he said:

I'm 43 now. I was at university at the height of the Thatcher revolution and I recognise now something I did not at the time: that her victory over a vested interest, the trade unions, was immensely significant.

I don't want to be churlish, that was an immensely important visceral battle for how Britain is governed.

Clegg compared Lib Dem policies on tax to those of the former Conservative chancellor Nigel Lawson. He also said that he would end the UK's Budget deficit entirely through spending cuts, as opposed to the 80 per cent cuts and 20 per cent tax rises proposed by the Conservatives. "If you want the economy to grow, you must stimulate demand," he said.

There are two ways of interpreting his comments. First, he leaves the way open to support the Tories in the event of a hung parliament. Back in January, he said of the Conservatives: "At the moment, of course, the differences are more striking than the synthetic similarities."

While he is still apparently retaining the position of "equidistance" between the two parties established before Christmas, such pointed courting of a core Conservative perspective appears to be an attempt to halt the widespread assumption that Labour is the more natural ally of the "third party".

Second, this could be an attempt to retain votes in constituencies where voters could swing towards the Tories. The prevailing view is that the Lib Dems are most likely to win seats from disillusioned Labour voters who cannot quite bring themselves to vote Conservative.

Such comments show that Clegg is trying to gain votes from across the political spectrum -- perhaps even from old-school Tories who are unenthused about David Cameron.

The problem with trying to please everyone, of course, is that you can't. The Guardian reports that those on the left of the Lib Dems, who make up a majority, are privately threatening rebellion or resignation if Clegg endorses a Conservative Budget.

As the party goes into its spring conference, Clegg would do well to clarify his message.

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.