When Margaret Thatcher was ousted in 1990, no-one mourned her more than the satirists. Unwilling to dispense with their most iconic puppet, the writers at Spitting Image contrived to keep her on. They did so by presenting John Major, perhaps unfairly, as nothing more than her stooge. In one episode Thatcher surgically removes his brain and replaces it with a transmitter, to ensure he does her bidding. The John Major of Spitting Image walks around robotically declaring: “I am a Thatcherite, I am a Thatcherite.”
One would be forgiven for thinking that a similar fate had befallen the current cohort of Tory MPs. The small inconvenience of Thatcher’s death has done little to dislodge her drawling voice from their minds. When Mike Freer, Thatcher’s successor as MP for Finchley, resigned from government two weeks ago, he wrote that he was doing “what Mrs Thatcher would have done”. Earlier in his letter, he admonished the Johnson ministry for “creating an atmosphere of hostility for LGBT+ people”; presumably the Thatcher he was invoking wasn’t the same Thatcher who introduced Section 28.
In the manner of religious zealots, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are locked in battle over which of them is the “true Thatcherite”. It’s worth remembering that Truss was four-years-old when Thatcher became Prime Minister, and Sunak wasn’t even born. As they vie with one another for Number 10, they are further removed from Thatcher’s accession than she was from Neville Chamberlain’s.
This is today’s Conservative Party: invoking Thatcher ad nauseam, to the detriment of actually making sense. Each of the two remaining candidates have a different sense of who Thatcher really was: Sunak’s Thatcher is a deficit hawk; Truss’s a dogged tax-slasher. Truss infamously works hard to emulate Thatcher’s appearance. Not wishing to be outdone, Sunak is promising to deliver “a 21st-century set of Thatcherite reforms”.
Since I’m not a Tory MP, I don’t conduct séances with the Iron Lady — but I suspect she would be unimpressed by the intellectual vacuity of the party that she led for 15 years. Thatcherism, after all, was never intended to be dead dogma. It was a radical response to the problems of the time. Nobody seems bothered to articulate a response to ours.
In the leadership elections of 1997 and 2001, the Tories complied with Thatcher’s will by anointing William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith. The former lost to Tony Blair in a landslide; the latter was unceremoniously dumped two years later. Thatcher’s ghost might appeal to Tory MPs and members, but elsewhere it still carries a stench. To become Prime Minister, Sunak and Truss may need to kneel at Thatcher’s shrine, but to remain in post for long, they’ll eventually need to attract voters in parts of the country where she isn’t much revered. Failing that, the Tories will limp like zombies into opposition, where — as Thatcher did in the late Seventies — they might even come up with some new ideas.