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Theresa May’s mission is to resolve Thatcher’s contradictory legacy

The new Prime Minister recognises how economic liberalism undermines conservative values.

In January 1956, as Anthony Eden’s premiership succumbed to drift and decline, the cry went up for the “smack of firm government”. Among Conservative MPs, Theresa May has satisfied a similar desire. Even some of her victims profess admiration for the ruthlessness with which she assembled her frontbench. The number of sacked ministers exceeded her parliamentary majority of 12. “She’s taken control,” Tory MPs say approvingly.

May’s decisiveness was one of the defining characteristics of her opening week. The other was her ambition. For some, the task of unravelling the UK’s 43-year EU membership would be work enough. Yet May has simultaneously vowed to reshape the economy so that it serves “everyone”, not “a privileged few”. For the new Prime Minister, the two missions are complementary. An ally spoke of May’s “acute awareness” that the Leave vote was not merely a rejection of the EU but “a roar against the dispossession of globalisation”.

In the first and only speech of her brief leadership campaign, she proposed a battery of measures to redress this: worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay and stricter controls over foreign takeovers. With this programme, it is not David Cameron’s or New Labour’s legacy that May is confronting, but that of Margaret Thatcher.

The economic forces that the former prime minister unleashed – through privatisation, deregulation and tax cuts – had ambiguous and unintended consequences. While dealing a hammer blow from which the socialist left and the trade unions never recovered, they also undermined the ordered society that she revered. The speculative frenzies of the market, the decoupling of contribution and reward and the surge in private debt contradicted her values of responsibility, fidelity and thrift.

As a senior Conservative told me: “That­cher couldn’t conceive of a world in which people who had more money and success wouldn’t want to put back something back. She wouldn’t have dreamed of thinking that she had to legislate for it.” As the second female prime minister, it was inevitable that May would be compared to the first. But the similarities extend far beyond gender. Both were shaped by their Christian fathers (May’s an Anglican vicar, Thatcher’s a Methodist lay preacher) and both adopted a rigorous moral code.

May’s mission is to construct the society that her predecessor envisaged but did not achieve. An ally described her as “politically seared” by the 1980s and the failure of many to “behave with necessary responsibility, generosity and public spiritedness”. Her ambition is to forge a model of growth that is not dependent on high immigration, excessive financialisation and industrial short-termism. This aspiration sets her apart from Cameron and New Labour, who reformed the superstructure of Thatcherism but never challenged its economic base. In her campaign speech, May spoke of “cutting out all the political platitudes about ‘stakeholder societies’ [a favoured Blairite motif] – and doing something radical.”

Her target is not Margaret Thatcher but her more doctrinaire followers. One of the most notable demotions was that of the libertarian Sajid Javid, replaced as business secretary by the more interventionist Greg Clark. In a ConservativeHome article in March, Nick Timothy, May’s influential joint chief of staff, rebuked those “who make it a mark of their ideological machismo that they quote Ayn Rand” (Javid’s intellectual hero). Although the new cabinet was labelled the most right-wing in recent history, the appointment of the veteran Tory wet Damian Green as Work and Pensions Secretary similarly showed a more complex balance.

Through the negotiation of Brexit, May is wrangling with another Thatcherite bequest. It was Thatcher who signed the Single European Act in 1986, extending the free movement of goods, services, capital and people. As the EU expanded, the liberal imperative of growth clashed with the conservative imperative of order. Net migration from Europe now stands at 184,000, a level regarded by May as unsustainable. Unlike some of her former cabinet colleagues, she was a sincere believer in reducing the net migration total (currently 333,000) towards “tens of thousands” a year. May’s challenge is to reconcile this ambition with the defence of the City of London’s pre-eminence. The Canadian-style “tariff-free access” proposed by Brexit negotiator David Davis would exempt the UK from free movement but would deny financial services the right to unhindered trade.

Governments are frequently better judged by their actions than by their words. Tories cite the planned £24.3bn takeover of ARM Holdings, the UK’s largest technology company, by SoftBank of Japan as proof that May will pursue a more liberal path than some of her rhetoric suggests. Downing Street replies that this is merely indicative of the Prime Minister’s case-by-case approach. But the vow to keep the UK “open for business and open to foreign investment”, as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it, risks colliding with May’s more protectionist leanings. The extent to which the government follows George Osborne’s proposal to reduce corporation tax from 20 per cent to 15 per cent will be telling.

Every prime minister since Thatcher has dwelt in her ideological shadow. The Brexit vote, one of the ruptures to which the UK is given roughly every 35 years (1906, 1945, 1979, 2016), constitutes a natural punctuation mark. Thatcher’s unintentionally liberal settlement could be supplanted by May’s harder-edged conservatism. Far more than Cameron, who sought the middle way of “the big society”, she heralds the role of the state in promoting national greatness, maintaining social order and widening equality of opportunity.

The fallout from Brexit could yet overwhelm May’s government. Yet her programme shows that she is not resigned to this fate. Having been underestimated outside office, she must now defy those who doubt her inside it. The resolution of Thatcher’s paradoxical legacy is a worthy test.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt

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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