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Conviction politics: ‘What Would Thatcher Do?’ grips the Tory party

9 April 2013

2:45 PM

9 April 2013

2:45 PM

Conor Burns, a close friend of Margaret Thatcher, gave a fascinating interview with Radio 4’s The World at One today about his memories of the Iron Lady. Like so many accounts, it focused on Thatcher’s disregard for opinion polls and focus groups. Burns said:

‘I think it’s a failure of politics that looks too much at focus groups and too much at public opinion polls. Again, I remember last November showing her a poll in one of the Sunday papers and it showed that we were nine points behind, and she asked when the next election was, and I said it wasn’t for another two and a half years and she said: ‘that’s not far enough behind at this stage.’ She sort of took a view that to do things that were right did entail unpopularity until people saw that what you were doing was working and she always had confidence that what she was doing would work and coincide with the electoral cycle, which is, despite the fact that she’s been written up as this incredibly controversial, divisive figure, which is why she won three general elections and was in power for 11 and a half years.’

He added that she might be ‘much more honest about the state of Britain’s finances, she’d be pointing out the debt as well as a deficit’ if Thatcher were in power today. You can listen to the full interview below:


We’re likely to hear more from Tory MPs about the value of conviction rather than consensus politics in the next few days. Certain backbenchers believe the government needs to be a little more thick-skinned that it is at the moment: when I interviewed Chris Skidmore in September, for instance, he told me that he wished British politicians were happier to be unpopular:

‘I think Canada would be a country that has immense potential and has an identity that it can be proud of because it got itself out of its own mess. And the bravery, the sheer determination of the politicians there, an acceptance we don’t  quite yet have in British society to actually be unpopular, to sort of say we will take a hit but we’ll do the right thing and if you do the right thing in life, you’ll have to make a difficult decision.’

Chances are that ‘What Would Thatcher Do?’ will become more of a pressing question for Tory backbenchers in the next few months than it has been for a while. As I blogged this morning, many in the 2010 intake in particular see her as their guiding light when it comes to policy. But the renewed fervour for conviction politics might mean a renewed desire for the government to take some decisions that the polls suggest will upset people. This has particular resonance when departments are being asked to shave even more from their budgets, particularly when it comes to spending pots which are electorally sensitive.

Perhaps Thatcher’s thick skin will also help Tory MPs get through these mid-term doldrums with a little less discomfort: they have not weathered it well so far. After the Eastleigh by-election, MPs were setting out circumstances under which the party’s mid-term fortunes could become a crisis. Will they grow a little more sanguine when they remember Thatcher’s belief in being far behind in the polls at this stage? Tory MPs are quite good at forgetting events supposed to boost their morale – the PM’s Europe speech being a prime example – before moving on to another crisis, but they are very good at remembering Thatcher.

Meanwhile, David Cameron has the difficult task of writing his own tribute to Thatcher for tomorrow’s Commons sitting. Does he try to place himself as someone taking on her mantle, trying to resurrect the glory days of the Tory party now? Or does he praise her to the hilt while suggesting that many of her victories contain lessons for politicians of today? The latter would suggest that he believes Thatcher was good for her time, which is the view many commentators take. The former response would be difficult for the Prime Minister to pull off sincerely, as Cameron has always given the impression he is more a student of Tony Blair than Thatcher.

But there’s one point worth considering. Was Thatcher really a conviction politician? Certainly she liked to think so: the list of quotes we published yesterday showed the importance she placed on that as part of her brand. In an essay for The Spectator in 1986, T.E. Utley argued that while she liked to paint herself as possessing unwavering convictions, her actions suggested otherwise:

‘It sometimes looks as though she lives a completely compartmentalised life. When talking to her friends or addressing a party conference, she is the philosopher queen, although the impression, as far as her public oratory goes, springs rather from the manner of its delivery than from its actual content; listen hard enough and you will always hear the qualifying clauses, often uttered rapidly and with an almost palpable physical revulsion. Then something happens in the real world — the need to bring the Rhodesian crisis to an end, the need to avoid a miners’ strike before the government is ready to cope with it, the need to placate a divided Cabinet over trade union reform — and Mrs Thatcher yields to necessity, often swiftly.

‘Who can doubt, for instance, that Mrs Thatcher is convinced that the welfare state needs radical reform, that she would like to introduce educational vouchers, student loans, possibly even to make the relatively rich contribute something directly towards their medical care? But most of these projects have been quietly dropped, or put into indefinite cold storage in obedience to supposed political necessity.’

So when Tory MPs do ask themselves ‘What Would Thatcher Do?’, they might find the answer isn’t quite so tough as they might think.

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