28 March 2024

Margaret Thatcher can teach today’s Tories how to win


I spent last weekend at a conference held at Buckingham University hosted by the Margaret Thatcher Centre with the support of the Freedom Association. I suspect Thatcher would have approved of the tone of the proceedings. That is because the focus was not on nostalgia for her achievements. Nor on the deficiencies of her successors. (Though both those themes cropped up.) It was about the future.

A rigorous consideration of what legislative and other changes were required to get our country back on to a path of freedom being strengthened rather than eroded. Sir Conor Burns, the Conservative MP for Bournemouth East, was among the speakers. He had befriended Thatcher in her later years and said that when he asked her about past glories she replied: ‘But as my father always said, it’s not what you’ve done that counts. It’s what you do next’.

The conference could have been rather fractious. Some present were journalists, others politicians. Some were members of the Conservative Party, others of Reform UK. But rather than a descent into bickering and recriminations, the atmosphere was fraternal. Various references were made to ‘the Conservative movement’ – without any sense of irony that this was parodying the Left. Chatting to those present there was a shared analysis that the Conservatives were facing defeat, that the cause was the failure to apply Conservative policies or articulate Conservative principles and that there was little prospect of this changing in the coming months.

The consensus was clear – the Tories could only boost their fortunes by rediscovering their sense of purpose, and that this was the only viable prospect of national salvation. 

As football fans across the land will tell you, ‘it’s the hope that kills you’. Those gathered in Buckingham were filled with serene calm as they were without any hope of Conservative victory in the General Election. This might prove wrong, of course, in these volatile times. But that was the mood.

There was also a feeling that at some point the Conservatives would return to power having learnt that the barriers to implementing Conservative policies would have to be cleared. Thus, Greg Smith, the local Conservative MP and Chairman of Conservative Way Forward, denounced the absurdity of being constrained by the Office for Budget Responsibility given its socialist assumptions and wildly inaccurate forecasting record. 

The imperative of dismantling the quango state was much discussed over the weekend. As was repealing the 2010 Equality Act, the 1998 Human Rights Act, the 2005 Constitutional Reform Act (which set up the Supreme Court) and withdrawing from the European Court of Human Rights. 

Without these fundamental reforms there was a certain futility about Conservative ministers complaining about woke excesses. Civil servants accused of being obstructive could retort: ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’. The police can argue they are interpreting the law following guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service. The universities, local government and the NHS can shrug that they are only following what is mandated as the Public Sector Equality Duty under the Equality Act.

Housing was considered a crucial issue if future generations were to be won over to Conservatism. Home ownership used to be a distinctively Conservative cause, usually linked to a way of strengthening the family unit, a great source of independence from the state. Private property and the chance to pass on an inheritance represents an affront to egalitarianism. It’s not being delivered. ‘People in their thirties can’t put a nail in the wall and hang a picture as they don’t own the wall,’ said James Price of the Adam Smith Institute. 

Liberalising planning rules to increase the housing supply was widely seen as the answer. Not least by Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, who gave a rousing speech at the conference dinner, combining good humour with a serious determination to see the cause of liberty advance. Lots of people remarked that he should become the next Conservative leader as they queued up for selfies. 

From the calibre of its candidates to state of Conservative associations, the Conservative Party as an organisation came came under a slew of criticism. John Stafford, a champion of democracy in the Conservative Party, remarked that the Conservative Party Constitution requires its members ‘to sustain and promote the objects and values of the Party’ but doesn’t mention at any point in the document what the ‘objects and values’ are. The high-ups regard Stafford as a bit of a troublemaker. 

So what lessons should today’s Conservatives take from Thatcher – not just over what to believe but how to win. Something of a myth has emerged of her being uncompromising and impulsive. But often she would be cautious, exasperatingly so to some of her more devoted supporters. She recognised if someone was ‘one of us’ but she made great efforts to maintain Party unity. There were plenty of jobs for the ‘wets’ provided they were willing to implement free market policies such as privatisation and deregulation. 

She was a conviction politician, but a politician nonetheless. Her ideology was not secret. But if it was necessary to take a circuitous route, she was willing to do so provided she reached the desired destination. 

Where Labour had built up electoral vested interests, Thatcher would see if she could make them a better offer. Workers with the protection of being employed in a nationalised industry were offered free shares when it was privatised. A means of reducing trade union power was to give more power to trade unionists, for instance in strike ballots. Labour offered council tenants rents well below those on the private market. Thatcher countered by offering the Right to Buy at a big discount on the market price. 

Thatcher would be clear about the direction she wanted to take but careful about announcing specific policies. The 1979 Conservative Manifesto didn’t have too many specifics. But nobody could really complain that they didn’t know what they were getting when they put Thatcher in. Timing was key. If something was unpopular, she was prepared to implement it if she thought it would work and be proven to do so before the subsequent General Election.

As far as campaigning techniques were concerned, Thatcher was a moderniser. Her decision to bring in Saatchi and Saatchi to liven up the campaign posters and the political broadcasts brought much derision. 

She was fortunate with her enemies. When up against the uncompromising Arthur Scargill and General Galtieri, it was easier for her to justify a resolute approach in response. 

So there was a fair dose of pragmatism over policies and which battles to fight. However, the principles themselves were deeply held and clearly articulated. How else could converts have been made? 

Sir Graham Brady, the Chairman of the 1922 and a speaker at the Conference in Buckingham, quoted from a Thatcher speech in 1975, at the Party Conference a few months after she became Leader: 

‘Let me give you my vision. A man’s right to work as he will, to spend what he earns to own property, to have the State as servant and not as master, these are the British inheritance. They are the essence of a free economy. And on that freedom all our other freedoms depend.’

Not everyone watching that clip on the TV news bulletins that evening would have agreed with her, of course. They might not like her clothes or her voice. But they could tell that she believed what she said and that she was in politics not for personal motives but for a patriotic mission. Four years later, enough of them had been persuaded for her to emerge victorious. 

That is the basis on which the Conservatives can win again. 

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.