Wednesday 1 December 2010

How Dave (finally) came out as a Thatcherite - and why it might not be so clever after all

Is David Cameron finally coming out as a true blue Thatcherite? The Spectator notes that the PM today embracing the idea that he is a "child of Thatcher" at Prime Minister's Questions, in order to attack Ed Miliband for having worked with Gordon Brown, certainly cheered the largely modern Thatcherite benches behind him up.

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.

Good performance.

Strange strategy.


JM said...

There are a few more examples of Cameron distancing himself from Thatcher (and Major also, if we want to look at Thatcherism as being Thatcher-Major). Three that came to mind:

Poll tax (

Section 28 (

Centralisation: 'The only area of Margaret Thatcher's legacy I regret is the centralisation of government which was performed in those days.' (

Sunder Katwala said...

I am going to accept those: you win the prize! Free access to the blog or something (!)

I note he apologises for the crassness of experimenting on Scotland first on the poll tax, without making a substantive criticism of the poll tax.

Section 28: he had done well in this area.

The telling quote is the third one: "the only area"

Indeed, that piece also says


"The second lesson from Margaret Thatcher concerns the method of change. Never forget the slow, clever way in which she went about preparing for her struggle with Arthur Scargill - she declined battle until Britain had a sufficient stockpile of coal to withstand a long strike. In politics, conviction and canniness are excellent partners".

A gradualist Thatcherite? Doubly dangerous?

The Purpleline said...

Stop trying to mask the grave error by the son of the son of the manse. This was a major reverse today.

Now if the Guardian reveal anything negative of Brown (doubt it as heavily censored)THE SON OF THE SON OF THE MANSE will be in big trouble as it will be open season.

The son of the son of the manse must remove his but from the spiked fence, i know he likes the feeling, but he has to remove it and get a backbone

no longer anonymous said...

"I note he apologises for the crassness of experimenting on Scotland first on the poll tax, without making a substantive criticism of the poll tax."

My understanding is that Scotland wasn't used as an experiment. It was introduced there before England due to an upcoming rate revaluation that couldn't be postponed which would have made the rates much more expensive. The poll tax was therefore introduced early to avoid this. Fat lot of good that it did.

13eastie said...

Why all the fuss about this?

Yes, Cameron gave Red Ed a(nother) comprehensive walloping in PMQ's.

Yes, Red Ed had nothing to say in particular about anything - desperate to accuse the Tories of being stuck in the past, but unable to do so without bringing up Thatcher who quit 20 years ago (demonstrating a New New Labour variation on Godwin's Law in the process).

All he said was that being a child of Thatcher would be preferable to being the son of Brown.

It's not a terribly instructive statement.

It's a bit like saying being a child of Thatcher would be preferable to attempting to hammer one's own testicles flat.

Zio Bastone said...


As the 'heir to Blair', he ought to be Thatcher's grandchild.

Why do you keep calling Ed Milliband 'Red' by the way? What 'red' features do you discern?

Robert said...

Bloody hell how many kids did Thatcher have, we all know Blair was the son of Thatcher, brown was the bits and bobs left over, now Cameron.

Robert said...

What is red about Ed, not a lot for god sake, he is more blue then red.

13eastie said...

Coming up with policies at a rate of less than one per year, it's difficult not to assume that, having been 'elected' by the unions' block and no-one else, Red Ed is to be expected to make good on some sort of promise to them.

I'll be very happy to stop calling him Red Ed when this state of affairs changes and also when people stop getting wound up by it - otherwise people are making it stick.

13eastie said...

...and happy to trade Thatcher's grandchild for the grandson of the manse...

Zio Bastone said...


So the answer, in fact, is none. Just what you call an assumption and others might call a prejudice unimpeded by obervation.

That is rather what I thought.

13eastie said...



"he is more blue then red" - is this one of the "prejudices" you're getting your knickers in a twist over?

Zio Bastone said...


So what? We share about 60% of our DNA with fruitflies, but that doesn’t make me one.

As when we spoke before about tuition fees, you’re creating a suspect class (in this case ‘red’ unions and their puppets) where you ought to be making an argument.