Many commentators say it is a misreading to regard Cameronism as an exercise in Thatcherite continuity. Maybe. But here is a "David Cameron is not a Thatcherite" challenge for those who think that.
Who can find three occasions where the Prime minister has directly said that he thinks that Thatcher or the Conservatives of the 1980s got a major political issue wrong?
For starters, I am aware of one direct and unambiguous 'Thatcher got that wrong' statement from David Cameron: he was clear in 2006 that he thinks she was wrong in her approach to apartheid in South Africa, a system thankfully dismantled from 1994.
But does the Cameron critique of Thatcher go beyond apartheid South Africa?
I don't think you can have a belief in progressive taxation, Dave says "I’m a Lawsonian, basically”.
And the "big society" is definitely not a correct answer to the question.
David Cameron wrote in the 2010 Tory party manifesto foreword:
... all of it brought together by my fundamental belief...that there is such a thing as society; it's just not the same thing as the state. So yes, this is a modern, progressive Conservative manifesto. It is confirmation that this party has changed."
Yet here is the Iron Lady, inventing David Cameron's signature soundbite in the Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture of 1996.
To set the record straight — once again — I have never minimised the importance of society, only contested the assumption that society means the State rather than other people.
And here is Cameron again, now setting out that this core social responsibility argument is inherited from Thatcher after all.
Those who ask whether I am a Conservative need to know that the foundation stones of the alternative government that we're building are the ideas that should unite us all: the ideas that encouraged me as a young man to join the Conservative Party and work for Margaret Thatcher...
The reduction of Thatcherism into a sort of laissez-faire libertarianism does not do justice to her record. She was animated by a vision of the good society – a vision obscured by decades of economic dirigisme and cultural relativism. The task she set herself was to restore not only personal liberty in economic matters, but also a sense of duty, respect and moral obligation in social matters.
I, too, am animated by a vision of the good society. What I call social responsibility – responsibility to family and community, nation and planet – is as central to my politics as economic liberalism. Indeed, I believe the two are closely related.
What's going on? It may well be that David Cameron has always believed that he is broadly Thatcherite, but has never been sure whether to say so, or to whom.
David Cameron won PMQs. But the curious thing about the political lobby and the bloggertariat immediately treating David Cameron's one-liner as a terrific knock-out blow is that it confuses performance and strategy.
The sharp retort would appear to risk deepening the central problem of David Cameron's own political leadership. (Paul Waugh is impressed that it was unrehearsed and unscripted, yet that perhaps exemplifies the point as to why it could be considered revelatory about the PM's political instincts).
Tory pollster Andrew Cooper and most neutral academic election experts now suggest that probably the biggest single reason why David Cameron won only 36% of the vote in 2010 - just 4% more than Michael Howard in 2005, despite so many factors favouring the Opposition - was that his brand decontamination exercise faltered, and ultimately failed to convince most voters that the Tory party had changed. 75% of voters wanted a change from Labour; only 34% wanted a change to the Tories. It should have been 1997 in reverse - when Tony Blair put 9% on Labour's share, to 44%, while John Major was still only 5% short of Cameron - and it wasn't.
As Philip Cowley and Denis Kavanagh wrote in their 2010 election study:
Populus developed mood boards to study the Conservative and Labour images and reported each quarter. The most worrying finding for the Conservatives was the perception that they would, in a crunch, stick up for rich and privileged people. Cameron privately confessed late in 2008 that the persistence of this last image kept him awake at night. It was a factor in his shadow cabinet reshuffle in 2009. That the perception declined only slightly by the time the election was called reflected the limits of Cameron's brand decontamination strategy.
If that is perhaps the biggest reason why the Tories didn't win the election, is that perception strengthening or weakening in power?
Having failed to persuade voters in 2010 that the Conservative party had changed significantly, perhaps the central strategic question is whether the Cameron
government is now putting substance on the change claim that was not there in the campaign, or whether the new Coalition increasingly looks like what people expect from the Tories in power anyway.
There are ways in which David Cameron has changed his party: primarily, in encouraging a diversity shift in terms of personnel, and in coming to terms with a more socially liberal Britain. Yet Cameron's decision never to challenge the Thatcher legacy symbolised the substantive limits of his party modernisation strategy.
So how far does embracing the Thatcherite banner help with that?
In fact, Thatcherism - 30 years on - divides contemporary British opinion down the middle still, as it did during her premiership. 40% think she made Britain better; 41% think she made Britain worse. David Cameron's current voters will be strongly on one side of the fence.
Yet the closest observers of Conservative politics can provide strong evidence of the enduring strength of Thatcherite principles among the Tory class of 2010 in particular, as Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome has set out.
The candidates standing under blue colours at this election - and ConservativeHome has surveyed them more intensively than any other media organisation - cut their political teeth under Margaret Thatcher. They want welfare reform. Control of the trade unions. Lower, simpler taxes. Support for the family. Strong defence. She changed the politics of her party forever. Her children are coming to power. They won't fail this country and neither will David Cameron.
I have blogged before that Cameron on Thatcher has usually been a masterclass in political ambiguity:
The Cameron political strategy does not seem to be a very complicated one.
While there have been different more and less 'progressive' phases of his leadership, each of them has involved the following strands.
(1) Write pieces and make speeches to centrist and left-leaning audiences which can be briefed as distancing Cameron from Thatcher.
But do not include direct criticisms of Margaret Thatcher or her government's record in them. Try to avoid saying anything at all about Thatcher or the 1980s.
(For example, if talking about 20th century trends in inequality and poverty in a Hugo Young Guardian lecture, quickly jump from 1968 to 1997 as if you think the 1980s never happened).
(2) Write pieces and make speeches to Conservative and right-wing audiences, which argue that you have been misunderstood when people say you are ditching Thatcherism, and point out that your ideas are precisely those which Margaret Thatcher held.
Do directly lavishly praise Margaret Thatcher in these pieces, and argue that your government will take inspiration from her in dealing with current issues.
Perhaps today, it is David Cameron who is finally coming off the fence over Thatcherism.