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April 9, 2013 11:16 am
David Cameron may have led the Conservative party to power in 2010 but it is the leadership of Margaret Thatcher that has inspired a new generation of thirtysomething Tory MPs whose formative years were shaped by her radical political creed.
Many of the 2010 Conservative intake say they entered politics because of Thatcher; their childhoods marked by a transformative political leader who tore up the postwar consensus and overhauled the economy and the state.
Thatcher broke the unions, closed down the coal pits and rolled back the state – privatising national industries, lowering taxes and fostering entrepreneurship.
“She is still considered the greatest peacetime leader since the second world war and on the Conservative party itself she casts an extremely long shadow,” says Anthony Wells, associated director of YouGov, the pollster. “Tory MPs will compare their leader, present and future, to an idealised vision of Thatcher, rather than the reality. That makes it very hard for incumbent leaders to compete,” adds Mr Wells
At the polls, Thatcher has beaten Mr Cameron hands down, winning three elections outright – one during recession in 1983 – while the present prime minister could only muster a coalition after 13 years in opposition. She enjoyed huge swings over Labour in the 1983 and 1987 elections, securing her place in history as the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century.
Mr Cameron is alive to her potency within his party. In an exchange with Ed Miliband in 2010, the prime minister got his backbenchers roaring with approval after the Labour leader attacked him as a child of Thatcher. “I’d rather be a son of Thatcher than a son of Brown,” Mr Cameron retorted.
But the prime minister is also aware that Thatcher’s policies did lasting damage to the party’s electoral prospects outside its southern heartlands. Her victory against the miners in the mid-1980s marked a seminal juncture in Britain’s industrial relations, but also rendered her Conservative party toxic in pockets of the industrial north.
Mr Cameron has attempted to modernise the party and broaden its appeal by marrying the hard free market economics of Thatcherism with a softer and more inclusive social programme. His ‘Big Society’ manifesto and championing of same sex marriage are the most overt manifestations of the Cameron brand of ‘compassionate conservatism’.
Explore the life of Margaret Thatcher, the ‘Iron Lady’ who became the UK’s first woman prime minister and who has died aged 87
However, he has faced opposition from the rightwing of the party, which has become more restive in recent months as its members tire of George Osborne’s failure to bolster the economy. They are increasingly evoking the spirit of Thatcher as they call for more tax cuts to stimulate the economy and further deregulation to boost enterprise.
The older generation of Thatcherite Tories – Liam Fox, David Davis, Brian Binley, Bernard Jenkin, John Whittingdale and Chris Chope – have been joined by fresh blood within the new intake – Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Conor Burns, Steve Baker and Nick de Bois. Both generations pressed for Thatcherite reforms – cuts to capital gains tax and further small business tax relief – in the run-up to the Budget in March.
“No one has done more [than Thatcher] to empower business and more to free people from the shackles of the state,” says Ms Patel. “The state has grown in the past 20 years and it is time to have a hard look at it once again to see if we can rationalise it.
Mr Cameron has often been accused of misreading the mood of his party, but he pitched his response perfectly on Monday as he cancelled a planned summit with French president François Hollande and instead flew home to lead the tributes to the Tories’ best-loved – and much loathed – leader.
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