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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Philip Hammond's house gaffe is a reminder of what the Tories lost when David Cameron left

The Chancellor of the Exchequer's blunder confirmed an old fear about the Conservative Party. 

Philip Hammond got into a spot of bother this morning describing the need for a transitional agreement with the European Union by comparing it to moving into a house, saying: "you don't necessarily move all your furniture in on the first day you buy it”.

This immediately surprised a lot of people, because for most people, you do, in fact, move all of your furniture in on the first day you buy a house. Or rent a house, or a flat, or whatever. Most people who buy houses are part of housing chains – that is, they sell their house to raise some of the capital to buy another one, or, if they are first-time buyers, they are moving from the private rented sector into a house or flat of their own.

They don’t, as a rule, have a spare bolthole for “all their furniture” to wait around in. Hammond’s analogy accidentally revealed two things – he is rich, and he owns more than one home. (I say “revealed”. Obviously these are things you can find out by checking the register of members’ interests, but they are, at least, things that are not immediately obvious hearing Hammond speak.)

That spoke to one major and recurring Conservative weakness: that people see them as a party solely for the rich. Focus groups conducted by BritainThinks consistently showed that when people were asked which group of TV families might vote Conservative, the only one that people consistently picked were the “posh couple” from GoggleBox.

David Cameron’s great achievement as Conservative leader was in winning two elections – the first, in 2010, the most successful night for the Conservatives since 1931, with 97 gains overall, the second, their first parliamentary majority for 23 years – despite being a graduate of Eton and Oxford leading a party that most voters fear will only look out for the rich.

He did it by consistently speaking and acting as if he were significantly less well-to-do than he was. Even his supposed 2013 gaffe when asked what the price of bread was – when he revealed that he preferred to use a breadmaker – projected a more down-to-earth image than his background suggested His preferred breadmaker cost a hundred quid and could easily have been found in any upper-middle class home in any part of his country. One of Cameron’s great successes was in presenting himself as an affable upper-middle-class dad to the nation, when he was in fact, well-to-do enough to employ a literal breadmaker had he so chosen.

This is slightly unfair on Philip Hammond who went to a state school in Essex and is by any measure less posh than Cameron. But his gaffe speaks to their big post Cameron problem (and indeed their big pre-Cameron problem) which is that while many conservative ideas are popular, the Conservative Party isn’t. Most of their big politicians are a turn-off, not a turn-on.

And until they can find a genuine replacement for David Cameron, miserable results like 2017 may become the norm, rather than the exception. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496