In death, Thatcher has been reborn into myth

The Conservative Party has never recovered from what it did to Margaret Thatcher and from the legacy of bitterness that resulted.

The British establishment is very good at weddings and funerals. The training begins early in our grand public schools, with their deep archival memory of imperial conquest and loss, their venerable buildings and chapels, their militaristic rituals and traditions and prevailing ethos of muscular Christianity. Margaret Thatcher, of course, was not born into the High Establishment, even though she married a millionaire businessman and sent her only son to Harrow. This was partly what made her so fascinating and such an unlikely leader of the Conservative Party.

I was present this morning inside St Paul’s Cathedral, that magnificent symbol of British resilience and defiance during the Blitz, and found the funeral service at times beautiful in the choice of readings, poetry (T S Eliot, Wordsworth), music (Fauré, Bach) and hymns (“I Vow to thee My Country”), and not at all triumphalist. Thatcher was not a war leader, even if she spent most of her premiership on a war footing, and this was a state funeral in all but name. The concerns about its cost are legitimate.

There’s been nothing in the culture to compare with the past ten days since the death of Diana in 1997. On that occasion the outpouring of grief was driven from the bottom up: the people loved Diana and they demanded that the royal family share publicly in their grief. The response to Margaret Thatcher’s death was a top-down phenomenon. It was as if the Conservative establishment was mourning not only the passing of a politician but something more than that, something tied up with the failures and melancholy of the present – a stagnating economy, a struggling and mediocre coalition government, a divided and unhappy Tory party. In the exaggerated veneration of Thatcher there is an implicit rebuke to David Cameron, who was at ease in St Paul’s today, as you would expect of someone of his background. He’s been well trained for these kinds of long recessionals and ceremonial farewells.

There were of course many familiar faces in attendance, from most of the present cabinet to those who served under Thatcher during her years in power, as well as those who fought on her side in the cold war, such as the former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa.

Thatcher was a notable philo-Semite – one of her more appealing characteristics – and the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and his wife had made the trip to London, as watchful as ever and flanked even inside St Paul’s by belligerent security operatives, as if to suggest they didn’t trust British security.

The sermon by the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, bearded friend of Prince Charles, was well modulated and amusing in parts. It aspired to be apolitical: “This, at Lady Thatcher’s personal request, is a funeral service, not a memorial service with the customary eulogies.”

Chartres briefly mentioned “the storm of conflicting opinions” about Thatcher before moving on to remark on her Nonconformist, Methodist upbringing and her “perseverance in struggle [and her] courage to be”. There was a nice quasi-philosophical disquisition on the nature of personal identity that would have interested John Locke. There was also an unintentional allusion, I think, to one of her favourite phrases: “Lying here, she is one of us, subject to the common destiny of all human beings.” Would the august bishop have been deemed “one of us”?

Chartres offered his own political (mis)reading of her notorious observation that there was no such thing as society and suggested that she had been misunderstood. And, in a remark that would surely have angered the Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, he quoted from her address to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland: “I leave you with that earnest hope that may we all come nearer to that other country whose ‘ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are peace’.”

Perhaps he had forgotten that this 1988 address in Edinburgh, her so-called Sermon on the Mound, in which she made an impassioned theological defence of her free-market dogmatism, enraged and appalled Scots. Delivered in the year before the poll tax was implemented in Scotland, Thatcher’s “sermon” contributed to the Tories’ definitive defeat north of the border.

Before the funeral service began, as the assembled guests and mourners waited for the Queen and then the coffin to arrive, it was fascinating to observe the interplay between our three main party leaders as well three former prime ministers: Major, Blair and Brown. Ed Miliband was in animated conversation with Nick Clegg before withdrawing into himself, as if his thoughts were full of the presentiment of power. Tony Blair was one seat away from Gordon Brown – they were separated by Cherie Blair – whose arm he reached out to touch as he sat down. Brown did not exactly recoil, but their exchange was very brief, though Brown spoke for longer to Cherie. When David and Samantha Cameron arrived, they exchanged happy kisses with the Blairs but Brown made no attempt to stand or shake the Prime Minister’s hand. He could not bring himself even to look up at Cameron, whom he loathes.

Bishop Chartres ended his address by quoting from Eliot’s “Little Gidding” (1942) from Four Quartets, a section from which was chosen as the preface to the service sheet: “In this Easter season Death is revealed, not as a full stop but as the way into another dimension of life.”

As Eliot, that High Anglican romantic conservative, puts it:

"What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from."

It is paradoxical indeed that in death Margaret Thatcher has been reborn . . . into myth. I was at school when she came to power and had recently graduated when she was ousted from Downing Street. She and her policies defined my adolescence and early adulthood, as they did Cameron’s, Clegg’s, Osborne’s and Miliband’s.

Nowadays Miliband likes to portray himself as a “Thatcheresque”, consensus-breaking insurgent. For Cameron, speaking on the Today programme this morning, “we are all Thatcherites” now – one of his more preposterous claims. What is not in doubt is that the Conservative Party has never recovered from what it did to Margaret Thatcher and from the legacy of bitterness from her departure. The fissures have just got even wider.

Members of the armed services carry the coffin following the ceremonial funeral of Margaret Thatcher at St Paul's Cathedral. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories