How the Thatcher myth attracts modern-day Conservatives to a no-deal Brexit

For many Brexiteers, leaving is about Margaret Thatcher's fourth term, not the EU, says Greg Rosen.

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When Theresa May proclaimed that “No-deal is better than a bad deal”  many saw it as half rhetorical flourish, half negotiating ploy. Brussels had to be convinced that the United Kingdom would weather anything rather than accept a bad deal. And it was via that strategy, its advocates claimed, that a good deal could be secured.

Previous governments had lacked the guts to risk everything to gain something, so many Conservative Brexiteers said. In the language of the Thatcherite 1980s, previous governments had been “wet”. The only Prime Minister who had got a good deal for Britain, so the story held, was St Margaret of Grantham. She had secured the rebate. She had done it by showing that, in the defining words of perhaps her most famous early party conference speech, the Lady was not for Turning, that she had courage in the face of political challenge.

Thatcherite Brexiteers drew contrasts between Margaret Thatcher and her Europhile predecessor Conservative PM Ted Heath. Heath, in Conservative lore, started out his Premiership as a proto-Thatcherite. But unlike his successor, he U-turned: when unemployment hit more than one million in 1973 he had “bottled it,” abandoned the economic policies of his manifesto, embracing instead a reflationary economic boom. Inflation let rip and Heath lost power amidst the miners’ strike and the three-day week over the winter of 1973-74. Margaret Thatcher by contrast, argued her cheerleaders, did not lose power when she fought the miners, she did not “U-turn” and she “won” in Europe. That, surely was the model for Theresa May to emulate.

And so to March 2019.

There is not a deal on which Parliament can agree. The Prime Minister has a withdrawal agreement which she says is the best the UK can get. Many in her own party disagree. Some of her resigning pro-Brexit ministers, such as Esther McVey, and leading Brexit-cheerleaders such as Jacob Rees-Mogg have quoted her words back against her with relish, that no-deal is better than a “bad deal”. Some even appear to be arguing that No-Deal is better than any deal – even a virtue in itself, a better form of Brexit.

No-Deal Brexit has become the preferred goal in itself: “Only by doing this will Britain’s best days lie ahead of us,” wrote former Cabinet minister Priti Patel in December. Veteran Thatcherite economist Patrick Minford agreed: “Hard Brexit’ is good for the UK economically while ‘Soft Brexit’ leaves us as badly off as before…’Hard’ is economically much superior to ‘Soft’.” Where does it come from, this lure of a “No-Deal Brexit”? Historians will hear in Professor Minford’s desire to have Brexit “hard”, echoes of what the Observer’s Economics Editor Bill Keegan famously dubbed the “sado-monetarism” of Margaret Thatcher’s first-term economic strategy, which her critics claim sought deliberately to exacerbate the economic and social pain of the recession of the early 1980s.

Every tribe has foundational legends, and for true Thatcherites, one of the defining episodes of their heroine’s Premiership was her decision to ignore the “experts” who criticised the “sado-monetarist” harshness of her economic policies. Most famously, she repudiated 364 economists who in March 1981 wrote a joint letter to the Times denouncing her policy and urging a u-turn. “U-turn if you want to. The Lady is not for turning” Mrs Thatcher had said, and she stuck to her word. 

As the Thatcherite IEA think-tank’s Philip Booth reminded Telegraph readers on the 25th anniversary of the event in 2006:

 “364 economists signed a letter to The Times stating that there was ‘no basis in economic theory or supporting evidence’ for the policy that the Budget was seeking to implement, that it threatened Britain's ‘social and political stability’, and that an alternative course must be pursued. The whole of the academic establishment - including some luminaries of today - stood against the government… Indeed, it is said that Mrs Thatcher was asked in heated debate in the Commons whether she could even name two economists who agreed with her. She replied that she could: Patrick Minford and Alan Walters. As the story goes on, her civil servant said when she returned to Downing Street: ‘It is a good job he did not ask you to name three.’”

For Booth, the lesson for true Thatcherite believers now was clear: “More than ever, Britain needs politicians who will stand up against the experts when there is a need to implement difficult policies. Thankfully we had such people 25 years ago, when the temptations to take the easy way out must have been so great: the consequences had alternative policies been pursued do not bear thinking about.”

The experts were wrong then, they believe, so they must be wrong now. And Patrick Minford, true believer and keeper of the flame, offers a guiding light now just as he did then. Michael Gove’s derision of experts during the Brexit campaign, who he characterised as “saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong”, intentionally echoed this most celebrated episode of Thatcherite lore.

That Britain didn’t necessarily want “sado-monetarism” in 1981, and that its benefits are contested, doesn’t get a look-in to this analysis. And nor does the political aspect. Thatcher saw it through, Britain took its medicine, “uncompetitive” businesses closed (and many competitive too), but Margaret Thatcher won a landslide in 1983: a Left-led Labour will ensure that Labour is unelectable and that for the UK, TINA holds the whip hand: There is No Alternative.  They created a desert and called it peace.

Perhaps that’s what Britain voted for at the Brexit referendum, but there seems little evidence of that. If they didn’t, the Conservative Party may find it loses a lot of votes.

Minford and his allies are gambling, as they did, successfully, in 1983, that Tory opponents are insufficiently electable to present a viable political alternative. Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to regain the confidence of the broad voter coalition that denied the Conservatives power between 1997 and 2010 suggests they could succeed. But if Labour can regain the confidence of that broader voter coalition or if a new independent group can build it instead, the Conservative Party could be out of power for a generation.

Greg Rosen is the chair of the Labour History Group.