Sunday, 5 February 2012

Portillo on Thatcher - The Lady's not for Spurning

This is a BBC4 documentary from 2009 presented by the former Tory minister Michael Portillo.  The programme comes across as being a little lightweight, though Portillo enjoys enviable access to a range of senior Tories, including David Cameron, Ken Clarke and Michael Howard.

Some of the Tories who appear in the programme appear to be weirdly starstruck by Thatch.  Gerald Howarth MP ludicrously calls her "the salvation of the nation".  Portillo himself describes her as a "role model" and says that he was inspired to enter politics by her.

To her many, many detractors, Thatcher is the archetypal Conservative - it is generally overlooked that she was not in fact an ordinary Tory at all.  Norman Lamont says that she was "a very untypical Conservative", and a product of the 1970s.  Portillo notes that she never had a majority of Thatcherites even in her cabinet.  Her subsequent influence on the Conservative Party has been extraordinary, pulling a large section of it closer to the right wing of the American Republican Party than to the British Conservative tradition of Salisbury, Baldwin and Macmillan.  She endorsed the winners of four party leadership contests following her deposition in 1990.  Only with the coming of David Cameron in 2005 did her influence begin to wane (thank God).

In her time, Thatcher fulfilled a certain purpose.  The British economy in the 1970s was in need of liberalisation, and the trade union movement was in need of reining in.  But, by the time she had won her historic third term, her dragons were all dead.  Ken Clarke remarks that she was "slightly losing the plot" by this time: she became impatient and excessively self-reliant, and her judgement deserted her.  She forgot that she had her own electorate - namely, the parliamentary Conservative party.  Even when she was challenged for the leadership by Michael Heseltine, a talented and dangerous opponent, it never occurred to her to canvass MPs for their support.  Portillo singles out her parliamentary private secretary Peter Morrison as the man who cocked up her 1990 leadership campaign, although he denies the rumour that he punched him.

The dramatic and ruthless manner of Thatcher's overthrow poisoned the Conservative Party for the next decade and a half.  Her acolytes were devastated at the treacherous assassination of their heroine.  In his memoirs, John Major sets out the basic claim of the Thatcher Myth:
Conservative MPs ejected a leader at the height of her powers, presiding over a healthy party, a quiescent nation and a benign set of outside circumstances.  It really was not like that.
Thatcher had also been rather less extreme in office than her supporters liked to remember.  Chris Patten observes that her energetic style masked a rather more cautious approach to governance.  David Cameron too suggests that she wasn't as uncompromising as the myth would claim.

Why was she brought down?  The first issue that precipitated her demise was the poll tax, which David Mellor calls "the biggest domestic political mistake since the Second World War".  Thatcher forced the tax onto the statute books against the wishes of her cabinet and much of her party.  As the documentary notes, there is something rather bizarre about the issue of local government finance bringing down a prime minister.

The second issue was the European Community.  It was Thatcher's "No, No, No" to Europe that precipitated her downfall - and it was hardline Euroscepticism that became the true Thatcherite faith in the 1990s and 2000s.  In some ways, this was a strange development.  Thatcher had consistently, if reluctantly, supported the European project throughout her political career until the late 1980s.  While she famously said of Maastricht "I could never have signed that treaty", the fact remains that she had supported EEC entry in 1973, campaigned for a Yes vote in the 1975 referendum and signed the Single European Act in 1986.  As Norman Lamont points out, the Conservative Party in general had not been atavistically Eurosceptic either (leaving aside marginal and eccentric figures like Enoch Powell).  In fact, it was the left wing of the Labour Party that was riven by anti-Europeanism in the 1970s and 80s.

During the Major years, Thatcher mostly refrained from attacking her successor in public, but she assiduously undermined him in private.  The Conservative backbenchers of the 1990s were in many cases young men who had been inspired by her to enter politics, and she encouraged them to join the epic rebellion against the enactment of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992-93.  John Major adopted a much more collective style of leadership than Thatcher had.  He lacked confidence and was not a great decision-maker - but he did succeed in holding the Conservative Party together, no thanks to the Thatcherite rebels.

When the Tories were annihilated in the 1997 general election, Thatcher phoned Portillo to commiserate with him on his defeat in Enfield Southgate.  "The fightback begins here", she told him.  Well, up to a point.  Portillo himself decided that the party needed to modernise, but William Hague ended up retreating to the party's Thatcherite comfort zone, adopting what Portillo describes as "policies that were 20 years out of date".  Labour wheeled Thatch out as a bogeyman in the 2001 election, while the Tories fought what Kenneth Clarke describes as "one of the quaintest election campaigns I have ever seen", focusing on the quintessentially Thatcherite theme of keeping the UK out of the Euro.

In the 2001 party leadership election, Thatcher endorsed IDS, a hardline Eurosceptic who had been serially disloyal to John Major in the 1990s.  Thatch had withdrawn from public life by the time of the 2005 election, but some of the right-wing themes chosen by Michael Howard for the campaign had a Thatcherite feel to them.  Only after Labour had won yet another term in office did Howard accept that the party needed to change.

Then came David Cameron.  Cameron says that Thatch was an "incredible leader", and that he is trying to learn lessons from her success.  But he distanced himself from her policies following his election as leader, and people who were close to Thatcher criticised him.  All the same, Thatcher retained her iconic status.  Gordon Brown thought that it was a good idea to have her over for tea at Number 10 in September 2007.