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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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.