Thatcher is the key to the Leveson inquiry

The Leveson inquiry marks the end of an era that began with Thatcher – the figure at the eye of a storm that has been 30 years in the making.

Margaret Thatcher was not the first to leverage the political power of the tabloid press, but – as with many things – she did it bigger and she did it best. In 1979, the year she came to power, the Observer described the Sun as "Mrs Thatcher’s missionary outpost to the working-class voter." By the time she left office a decade later, the Sunday Telegraph was willing to accept that, "the support of The Sun can make or break the fortunes of the Tory Party."

Every subsequent Prime Minister has had to come to terms with this doubled-edged aspect of Thatcher’s legacy. The closeness Thatcher cultivated with the tabloid press was a powerful weapon for any successor to inherit – but it came with a dangerous degree of vulnerability to an ever-mightier media empire. In this respect, the Leveson inquiry may prove to be the final reckoning in a saga that has been running for over 30 years.   

The relationship between Thatcher and the tabloid press was authentic in a way that none of her successors – not even Blair – were ever able to emulate. Their natural affinity grew out of a shared and unabashed populism that flourished in a decade set up to reward populism like no other. Britain in the 1980s was a society ill at ease with itself. Despite the much-heralded "revolution" in social attitudes brought on by the sixties, the vast majority of the British public regarded the sexual liberation movements and "permissive" reforms of previous decades as the work of a remote political and intellectual elite. As the Sun proclaimed as late as 1994, "It doesn’t bother MPs that a consistent 75% of the British people want vicious killers to be hanged. It doesn’t impress them that most of us feel deeply uneasy with condoning acts of teenage homosexuality. Parliamentarians prefer to rely on their own consciences."

Like the reassuring rhetoric of the tabloid press, Thatcherite policy deftly channelled popular suspicion of these elites and the permissive values they condoned. Section 28 famously banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools as a "pretended family relationship", in stark contrast to the sexual normalcy and nuclear family structures that would restore the nation to moral health. It managed to present homosexuality as a kind of Politically Transmitted Disease carried by the ‘loony left’, and by so doing, imbued the moral backlash against the gay rights movement with a sense of national urgency.

Perhaps the most ingenious of all Tory constructs, the "loony left" furnished the tabloids with a rich and never-ending seam of entertaining stories:  in the mid-1980s it was reported that Labour-controlled local authorities had banned the nursery rhyme "Baa baa black sheep" and black dustbin liners as racist. Moreover, in its repetitive and unrelenting association of the left with unpopular permissive causes, this tabloid trope carried the Conservative message beyond the traditional Tory heartlands, and into the new, remoter electoral provinces of the Murdoch empire.

Later Tory leaders have all played to these resonances in one way or another. Particularly when there is political capital to be gained from a wider sense of social anxiety, Conservative politicians have a habit of lapsing into moral hyperbole. Just as Thatcher responded to popular anxiety about permissive reform, David Cameron (with the help of the Sun) built his 2010 election campaign around the motif of "Broken Britain", and John Major produced his ill-fated "Back to Basics" campaign in the wake of Black Wednesday and the murder of Jamie Bulger. Upbraiding a "broken" society and urging national regeneration through stronger family life has proven to be an effective – and cheap – way to reap mass support at times of social unease or moral panic.

Thatcher created a political culture in which the personal was political and the political was personal. This was not, however, something that Major was readily inclined to recognise – particularly in the midst of the notorious string of sexual and financial scandals that plagued nearly a dozen Conservative ministers and MPs during the 1990s. By trying to claim that the personal lives of erring ministers like David Mellor and Tim Yeo were "purely private matters", Major refused to acknowledge the extent to which years of stories by these very tabloids on ‘private matters’ like sexual morality had served to bolster his party’s standing with the electorate. To Major, "Back to Basics" may well have been a cynical communications exercise – yet for the press, it was deeply intertwined with one of the defining news agendas of the era.

As is well known, the disintegration of the Conservative-Murdoch alliance under Major was swift and brutal. The devastating effectiveness with which the tabloid press dismantled Major’s hopes of re-election in 1997 revealed the unassailable position of strength to which it had ascended during the Thatcher years. Though sleaze was not the only issue at stake in Major’s twilight hours, it was the means by which the tabloids were able to control the news agenda and drown out any attempt by the government to regain the political initiative. The Sun’s headline on Black Wednesday, "Now we’ve ALL been screwed by the Cabinet", is a brilliant example of the way in which it kept sleaze at the forefront of political consciousness.

Major’s landslide defeat in 1997 was a cautionary tale for future leaders on the perils of estranging the Murdoch empire. As the efforts of Blair, Brown and Cameron to curry favour with News International have shown, Major was the last Prime Minister to fail to appreciate the power of Murdoch and the tabloid press. After his example, no leader would make that mistake again.

Margaret Thatcher visits David Cameron at 10 Downing Street in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

Helena See is a researcher for the parliamentary think tank Policy Connect.

Photo: Getty
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Will Brexit be a success? Not if Football Manager is any guide

I played both the 2017 and 2018 versions of the game for thirty years after Brexit. The result was a grim future.

If England wins the World Cup, but the Premier League loses one of its Champions League places, has Brexit succeeded or failed? That’s the question that could define whether Brexit endures or is merely a one decade proposition, at least if Football Manager is any guide.

Two years ago, the popular football simulation made headlines after announcing they would incorporate a range of possible Brexit scenarios into their game. On 29 March 2019, players would be told what the outcome of the Brexit talks were, with major implications for how British football clubs conducted their transfer dealings. The options: an EEA-style Brexit, in which the United Kingdom maintained its membership of the single market and with it the free movement of people and the current frictionless trade with the continent, a Canada-style Brexit in which the United Kingdom leaves the single market with the concomitant repercussions for trade with the continent, and a no-deal scenario.

I have now played both the 2017 and 2018 versions of the game for a good thirty or so years after Brexit. In both cases, I experienced what is still far and away the most likely flavour of Brexit – a Canada-style arrangement with a reduced level of market access. (The one disappointingly unrealistic note is that this all takes place with no transition in March 2019.) And in both cases, I was still at the start of my managerial career, carving out a name for myself in the lower tiers of English football, with Oxford City and FC United of Manchester respectively. (I begin my games of Football Manager unemployed and take whatever job I can get.)

What both saves have immediately in common is that for the great mass of football clubs, there appears to be no real difference between life the day before, or after, Brexit. 

Oxford City mark the first full season after Brexit by achieving almost perfect equilibrium in League One – 15 victories, 16 draws and 15 losses –  while FC United are promoted from League Two at the first sign of asking. It doesn’t appear as if British football is going to be all that different outside of the EU.
But the summer proves otherwise. Signing players, already nightmarishly hard at Oxford City – my wage budget is punishingly low -  becomes more difficult, as I no longer have immediate and foolproof access to the European market.  My usual approach in the lower leagues is to buy young technically adept players from Scotland, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Ireland, and finance that by selling a player every summer.  Although FC United have a more competitive salary structure, they too struggle.

But as a net exporter of players, that’s all to the good. Other, bigger clubs respond to the unreliability of the European market by being more competitive for my players, and I successfully reinvest the proceeds, winning promotion to the Championship with both clubs in 2020-21

There, again, I find the football landscape much as I’d expect it: a series of financially over-extended clubs, all a bad run away from crisis, who are desperate for players with visas. This is double-edged: Oxford City are still a selling club, so the increasing cost of players is good for me. But unfortunately, not every one of my starlets can get the big move they want. On the eve of my third season in the Premier League – 2024-25 – a £97m deal for Ollie List, a buccaneering fullback I plucked from Fulham’s academy, falls through at the last minute, leaving me unable to buy several key targets and List thoroughly disgruntled.

The only way I stop List’s bad attitude bringing down the rest of my players is to bust open my wage structure to give him an eyewatering salary increase. He repays me by being the lynchpin of a defence that wins nine titles over the next decade, but he is symptomatic of a wider problem: I can’t sell on my players and I can’t easily buy replacements, so the only way to keep the show on the road is to pay higher salaries.

That dynamic seems to be playing itself out at other clubs up and down English football. My noisy neighbours, Oxford United, declare bankruptcy and are relegated three years in succession. As I celebrate Oxford City’s Premier League win in 2025-6, Derby County, Crystal Palace, Liverpool FC and Leeds United all find themselves in some kind of financial jeopardy, which is a good opportunity for me to buy some good players at a knockdown price, but again, on eyewatering wages. FC United’s first league title in 2024-5 similarly comes against a backdrop of clubs declaring bankruptcy.

To compensate for the lack of access to the European market, I turn my eyes further afield, signing players from Latin America, Africa and southeast Asia. I still face heavy visa restrictions, of course, and my Premier League rivals are in the same game. Ultimately, Brexit is good for increasing trade outside of Europe – but the increase in trade is not large enough to compensate for the loss of easy access to the European market.

While I am doing well myself in European competition, most English clubs are not. In a moment that triggers national soul-searching, the damage to our UEFA coefficient means that the Premier League loses one of its four Champions League places in 2032-33 in both saves with France the beneficiary in Football Manager 2017 and Italy the benefactors in Football Manager 2018. But in both cases, the English football team enjoys major success at the following international tournament (not, I should make clear, as a result of my involvement: I consider international football to be beneath me).

In both cases, the post-Brexit future is roughly in line with the bulk of economic forecasts: wages up, but prices up too. Trade with the world outside the EU up, but not by enough to compensate for the loss of trade with the continent. And crucially, underperformance relative to the rest of Europe.

So if Football Manager is any guide, expect Brexit to be a modest failure: and Axel Tuanzebe, the Manchester United centreback, to be a storming success.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.