Don't tell Truss (Anthony Devlin/Getty Images)

April 11, 2023   5 mins

As Conservative efforts to animate the ghost of Margaret Thatcher ramped up last September, when the real Thatcherite, Rishi Sunak, was beaten by a cosplaying Liz Truss, few noticed that a similar exorcism was taking place within the Labour Party. In the same month Truss entered Downing Street, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves highlighted Labour’s fiscal prudence by claiming, as Thatcher did in 1979, that hers was the party of “sound money”. The following day, Keir Starmer went further and seized the mantle of “the party of homeownership” from the Tories.

These were not cheap attempts to exploit the weakness of the Conservatives during the 49 days of Trussonomics, but part of a sustained strategy to plunder Thatcher’s legacy. In a major speech on crime last month, Starmer quoted her directly: “The rule of law is the foundation for everything. Margaret Thatcher called it the ‘first duty of government’. She was right.” Predictably, these last three words deeply offended the Labour Left. The fury on social media was nearly as great as when he banned Jeremy Corbyn from standing as a Labour candidate at the next election. In both cases the outrage was the point. What better way to prove you are a different sort of leader from Corbyn than to follow Tony Blair and admit that Thatcher got some things right?

But 10 years after Thatcher’s death, Starmer could, and should, go further — and learn other lessons from her success. The first is the most straightforward: know your enemy, identify them, and fight them on your own terms at a time of your choosing. Politics, in Boris Pasternak’s words “is not a walk across an open field”. People — bad people, and vested interests — want to stop you. And while you can’t avoid conflict, you can be prepared for it.

Labour can’t afford to just sit back and watch the Government fall into disarray; it needs to put them in the wrong and keep them there. Margaret Thatcher used the “Winter of Discontent” as a stick to beat Labour for a decade, through a combination of rhetorical reminders and legislative action that weakened the unions. Today, Starmer and his team need to constantly remind voters that the pain they are currently feeling over the cost of living and the collapse of basic standards in policing, the NHS and public transport are Tory failures. This is the theory behind Labour’s new wave of attack ads. Put your enemy in the wrong and keep them there. Are Labour’s social media ads fair? Perhaps not. Are they effective in framing the conversation? Absolutely. Just as Thatcher used Saatchi and Saatchi and brought the modern techniques of marketing and advertising into politics, so Starmer’s team are using modern channels to tie the Tory failure on crime to Sunak.

Less straightforward, but more important, is the need for Starmer to echo Thatcher’s commitment to a fixed world view. For many on the Left and Right, Thatcher was a divisive figure — yet she also commanded a grudging respect. This could be summed up in the phrase: “Whatever you think about her, you always know what she’s going to do.” Decisiveness is a powerful asset for a leader. It is not simply that, in the words of Pierre Medes-France, “to govern is to choose” — nor is it that drift, dither and indecision is weak. Rather, the power of decisiveness stems from the power of decisions to create a framework and a filter that serve as a test for any policy proposals. When David Willetts ran the No. 10 Policy Unit for Thatcher, he made his team ask a simple question of any new policies: “Is there a more market-oriented solution?” And there invariably was. Similarly, New Labour had its own — less ideological, but appropriately pragmatic — test: “What matters is what works.”

To succeed, Starmer needs his own framing test. And this requires him to look at the horizon. Thatcher and Blair both addressed the fundamental questions of their time. For Thatcher, it was the sclerotic economy; for Blair, it was the need to rebuild public services. Right now, the cost of living is dominating lives, and tackling it is urgent, but it will pass through the economy in the coming years. For Starmer, his office-defining challenge will be climate change. Labour has already placed its big spending bet on decarbonising the economy — £28 billion a year of investment. But if Starmer wants this to actually happen, his No. 10 operation has to keep asking: “Does this get us to Net Zero faster?”

Hugo Young called his magisterial study of Thatcher One Of Us, after the question she asked about senior appointments. Are they “one of us?” Are they going to be part of the project? One of the hardest things in politics is achieving genuine change. And as so often, Machiavelli got it right: nothing is more difficult than “to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things”, since a new leader “has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new”. At a dinner some years ago, Lord Howell, who had been a Cabinet minister in the first Thatcher administration, turned to me and said: “When you were Tony Blair’s Political Secretary, I bet you had the same problems as we did.” I expressed some confusion, so he clarified. “I bet you never had enough Blairites. We never had enough Thatcherites. We had to fight all the time to make the changes we needed to make. We were always outnumbered.” “Yep! Same.”

Here is Starmer’s third lesson. He must surround himself with true believers and get a grip on the machine from the outset. To borrow Dominic Cummings’s phrase, that means a “hard rain”. The civil service and system of public appointments have been thoroughly politicised. It is not merely the well-publicised furore about the Chair of the BBC — it’s the same across all public appointments, from the Charity Commission to NHS boards. Some old-fashioned voices are already calling for Labour to depoliticise public appointments if they get in, but these should be ignored for the sirens they are. Change needs change-makers, and Starmer will need an army of them. From health to crime to energy, reform as fundamental as Thatcher’s transformation of public services is needed. And while parachuting in allies may make for crude politics, it also makes for success.

Finally, Starmer can also gain some solace from the example of Thatcher. Opinion polls and focus groups consistently find Sunak more “prime ministerial”. The same was true in the Seventies, when Jim Callaghan routinely outpolled Thatcher. But it didn’t matter. As Callaghan observed: “There are times, perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of.” The brute reality is that Prime Ministers invariably look more prime ministerial than opposition leaders because they have the trappings of office. As soon as an election is called next year, those trappings will swiftly disappear.

And when that inevitably happens, Starmer will face a choice. By then, Sunak’s Conservative Party will have evacuated the ground bestowed on it by Thatcher. Will Labour be bold enough to step in and seize it?

John McTernan is a British political strategist and former advisor to Tony Blair.