If the Conservatives want to win a majority, they must smash their idols

For the Tories, Margaret Thatcher remains beyond reproach. It’s this that will stop them from winning.

 

Perhaps the most surreal moment in Britain's Margaret Thatcher tribute jamboree came when Peter Lilley slammed the BBC for having the gumption to suggest his former employer had been a teensy bit on the divisive side. The fact that her policies continue largely unabated means "she leaves a legacy that unites us all," he argued; the broadcaster's choice of adjective "probably tells us more about the BBC than it does about her". It wasn't enough for the BBC to broadcast wall-to-wall eulogies to the most controversial political leader of modern times: now it was supposed to pretend she had never been controversial in the first place.

This moment stays with me – partly because it's so self-evidently ludicrous, but also because it seems to symbolise the Tories' huge, unspoken electoral problem. The party is in denial about quite how toxic the Thatcher legacy remains in certain parts of the country. Its supporters were, not unreasonably, outraged that anyone could throw a street party to celebrate the death of an 87-year-old woman; but they never stopped to ask how widespread such feelings were, or what impact they might have on the party’s prospects.

This refusal to take an honest look at the Thatcher legacy is, I think, a key reason why the Conservatives didn’t get the landslide they wanted in 2010. The Clause 4 moment that everyone was waiting for, the thing that would show that the party had really changed, was a proper assessment of its last government’s record: one that admitted that parts of the country had been lain waste, and showed that the new leadership had learnt from its predecessor’s mistakes. But David Cameron never did that. Until someone does, it’s hard to see how the party could ever win a majority.

There’s a risk all this sounds like lefty wish-fulfilment, of course, so let’s look at some evidence. Consider the constituencies on the Tories target list that they failed to win in 2010, and see if you can spot any patterns. These seats are scattered all over the place, and will be affected by a variety of local factors. Almost all of them, though, fall into at least one of the following three categories.

1) Suburban seats in the big secondary cities, that historically swung between Labour and Tory but stubbornly failed to do so this time (e.g. Birmingham Northfield, Bolton North East, Tynemouth);

2) Scottish seats (e.g. Stirling, Angus, Dumfries);

3) Ostensibly true blue areas that went Lib Dem at some point in the nineties, and have never gone back (e.g. Cheltenham, Somerton, Taunton Deane).

When it comes to those first two groups, you don’t have to think very hard to come up with reasons they’re less likely to go Tory than they once were. (We’ll come back to the third lot.) However much the Tories yell about more miners losing their jobs under Wilson than Thatcher, it’s still her government that gets the blame for the demise of British industry: obviously a bigger factor when you get north of Milton Keynes. In Scotland, anger about de-industrialisation is compounded by other issues, not least that it had a whole extra year of the poll tax.

The result is that there are dozens of once marginal constituencies that now look out of reach. Tynemouth had a Tory MP for nearly 50 years until 1997; in 2010, Labour retained it by nearly 11 points. Birmingham Edgbaston had never had a Labour MP until 1997, but in 2010 Gisela Stuart retained it without breaking a sweat.

Most extreme of all is the collapse of the party’s fortunes north of the border. In October 1974, an election the party lost, the Tories won 16 seats in Scotland. Two of them were in Glasgow. Today, the party has one Scottish seat. Somehow, we’ve all come to accept this as normal; even now the Tories are planning an electoral strategy based on recapturing LibDem seats in the south.

Cameron's detoxification efforts did nothing to address any of this. Where was the attempt at reconciliation with Scotland, or to reassure the north he didn’t idolise a period in which entire towns were dumped on the scrapheap? He didn’t have to apologise, exactly; but he could at least have shown that he understood his predecessor’s record remained a concern. Not a bit of it, though.

That's the long explanation for why the Thatcher legacy is still harming the Tories’ electoral chances. This is the short one: 42%. That’s the proportion of voters a 2011 survey found would never vote Tory. Won’t even think about it. As Tim Montgomerie said at the time, that leaves the party in the unenviable position of needing to win three-quarters of every available voter to get a majority.

It’s this that explains the loss of once blue seats to the yellows. The fact that places like Cheltenham or Somerton don't have Tory MPs is at first glance faintly bizarre. But one of the more noticeable electoral trends of the past 20 years has been the rise of the anyone-but-the-Tories bloc: once this group has seen that it can keep the Tories out by voting LibDem, even in places like Cheltenham, it’s likely to keep doing so. Whether this tactical voting will survive the coalition remains to be seen, but the Eastleigh by-election result suggests that it could. Does anyone really think that that the divisive nature of the Thatcher government had nothing to do with this?

The Conservative party’s only chance of winning the sort of majorities it used to get is to persuade some of that 42% to give it another chance. Doing that, though, would mean addressing their concerns; that, in turn, means admitting to the downside of the Thatcher legacy.

But David Cameron hasn’t done that: his government remains wedded to the vast majority of the Thatcherite platform. And, as we've learnt from the last month, his predecessor’s legacy is sacrosanct. Cameron could never issue a mea culpa about deindustrialisation, or mass unemployment, or the treatment of the Scots: that would mean dishonouring the memory of his party’s heroine, criticising a period that much of its membership still regards as the golden age. Vast swathes of the party, indeed, want to rerun the eighties all over again, finding another union to crush or another industry to privatise. For all I know that'll stop a few waverers from defecting to UKIP in safe seats in Sussex, but I don't imagine it'll play all that well in Birmingham Northfield.

To any Tories reading: this isn't about renouncing the Iron Lady and all her works. You aren’t going to do that, and no New Statesman> writer is ever going to persuade you otherwise. It's about persuading you to deal with the world as it is, not as you'd like it to be. It’s not enough to be outraged that there are still people who hate Margaret Thatcher. It’s not enough to think you’re right. There are voters out there who might once have voted Tory, and yet will not now. If you want to return to majority government, you need to ask yourselves why.">

In the eighties, at the height of the Thatcherite ascendancy, the joke was that the Labour left had a motto: "No compromise with the electorate". Thirty years on, the Tories risk making that same mistake: refusal to compromise won elections for them once and so, they assume, it will do so again. It won’t. That is Margaret Thatcher's legacy, too.

Tributes to Margaret Thatcher are left outside her residence in Chester Square, London. Photograph: Getty Images

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

Getty
Show Hide image

The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.