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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.

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

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.