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.

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left