Cameron's embrace of Thatcher's mantle has been a disaster for the Tories

In opposition, Cameron recognised the profound limits of Thatcher's approach. But in office he has retreated into dogmatism.

It is easy now to forget how eager David Cameron was to distance himself from Margaret Thatcher's legacy when he became Conservative leader. As well as repudiating the most egregious aspects of her reign, such as Section 28 and her description of Nelson Mandela's ANC as "terrorists" (prompting Thatcher's former spokesman Bernard Ingham to remark: "I wonder whether David Cameron is a Conservative"), he explicitly recognised the baleful consequences of her economic policies, including the dramatic rise in inequality and child poverty (which tripled from one in nine children to one in three, the highest level in Europe).

While Thatcher dismissed those concerned about the gap between the rich and the poor as crude egalitarians ("he would rather that the poor were poorer, provided that the rich were less rich," she said of Simon Hughes at her final PMQs), Cameron declared in 2006: "I want this message to go out loud and clear: the Conservative Party recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty. Poverty is relative – and those who pretend otherwise are wrong." Later, in his 2009 Hugo Young Memorial lecture, he recognised the great insight of The Spirit Level, that, in his words, "among the richest countries, it's the more unequal ones that do worse according to almost every quality of life indicator." 

Even while acknowledging that a Conservative government would cut public spending in order to reduce the deficit, he promised to do so in a fair and responsible way. "This is something we need to do with the public sector, not to the public sector," he said in 2009. "This is very important: this is not some 1980s-style approach about cutting public spending." While Thatcher branded her opponents "the enemy within", Cameron declared that "we are all in this together". He promised that the 50p rate, an important symbol of solidarity in hard times (and, as I noted last week, a source of revenue), would remain. "I have been very clear that we have to do this in a way that is fair so that the broadest backs bear the biggest burden. That is why we haven’t changed for instance the 50p tax rate," he said as late as November 2011. 

But under pressure from his recalcitrant backbenchers and a hard-right conservative press, he has retreated into dogmatism. The 50p rate has been scrapped, the NHS ("the closest thing the English people have to a religion", in the words of Nigel Lawson) recklessly reformed and Europhobia indulged. Even after a double-dip recession and a £245bn increase in forecast borrowing, he only offers the Thatcherite mantra that "there is no alternative". In so doing, he has alienated many of the voters originally attracted by his promise of a more compassionate conservatism. The irony is that Thatcher, a far more pragmatic figure than many of her followers remember (she signed the integrationist Single European Act, barely touched the NHS and allowed public spending to rise), may have charted a more reasonable course. 

The challenges confronting today's Conservative Party have little in common with those faced by Thatcher when rampant inflation and trade union militancy meant there was a ready audience for her free-market brand of conservatism. In age of declining living standards, gross inequality and unaffordable housing (a legacy of the "right to buy" and the failure to build new stock), the voters crave a more, not a less, interventionist state. If the Conservatives are to revive their support in the north and Scotland (parts of the country where Thatcher remains widely loathed) and win again, they will need to draw on the richer, one-nation tradition that Cameron once sought to stand in. But to the great advantage of Labour and Ed Miliband, ever fewer Tories are willing to say so. 

Margaret Thatcher waves as she stands with David Cameron on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street on 8 June 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.