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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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