LONDON — Margaret Thatcher famously declared in 1987 that she would go on and on as prime minister. Soon after she was ousted — but that hasn’t stopped her dominating the Conservatives’ leadership race 35 years later.
Wannabe British prime ministers Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are, despite their different economic and political approaches, competing over who gets to be crowned the true heir to Maggie. Some observers see it all as the sign of a party grappling with a serious identity crisis.
Thatcher’s ghost looms large over this contest in a way that it hasn’t in Tory politics for some time. Thatcher barely featured in the 2019 and 2017 leadership races that handed the crown to Boris Johnson and Theresa May respectively, while in 2005 David Cameron won on a modernizing ticket that took his party, at least in rhetoric, away from Thatcherite conservatism.
In part, it’s symptomatic of the party’s drift to the right in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit referendum. And with leaders ultimately chosen by the party’s 200,000 or so members, the race is reflective of the Conservatives most committed rank and file rather than the wider British public.
Anthony Seldon, historian and biographer of successive British prime ministers, said the tendency to hark back to Thatcher “has always been there but is accentuated at the moment because the party doesn’t know what it is or what it wants.”
“In the 32 years since she stood down no Conservative leader has approached her,” he said. “No one has won three election victories, nobody has captivated the right, nobody has made Britain feel so strong as a country again. She had it all.”
That legacy looks particularly attractive now after Brexit brought deep Tory divisions to the surface, splits that go much deeper than attitudes toward the European Union.
“Thatcher brought the Conservative party together, she unified it in a common cause,” Seldon said. “Both candidates want to be the person who can capture her same magic.”
Everybody loves Maggie
Asked last week to name their party’s best leader, both Sunak and Truss said Thatcher, without missing a beat.
Sunak heaped praise on Thatcher’s political courage at the beginning of her premiership. “If you remember her early budgets — and, actually, what we had to do as a country at that phase — even though it was difficult, she understood that you have to get a grip of inflation first and get a grip of public spending and borrowing,” Sunak told members in Leeds last month. “That was very much her mantra … and that is exactly the same path that I want to follow.”
For Truss, Thatcher is an icon because “she turned our country around” during a difficult time. “What I sensed in the 1980s is a growing sense of pride in our country and a growing sense of optimism about the future,” Truss told the same hustings event. “When we saw the Berlin Wall fall, and we saw the freedom and democracy and the pride in our values influencing the rest of the world, you know, she was a tremendous leader, a really world-changing leader.”
Robert Saunders, a historian of modern Britain at the Queen Mary University of London, argues both candidates are using Thatcher as “a way of painting in the gaps in their profile in primary colors.”
“Sunak wants to invoke the early Thatcher, who prioritized taming inflation over quick economic fixes; who raised taxes during a recession and spoke of ‘balancing the books,’” Saunders said. “Truss, by contrast, invokes the triumphant, swashbuckling Thatcher of the later years: a Thatcher who cut taxes, ‘won the Cold War’ and towered over British politics. Neither version is wholly false, but both cherry-pick aspects of the Thatcher myth, to suit their own political purposes.”
Truss had a head start in the Thatcher tribute act. The Westminster rumor mill has long remarked on her apparent eagerness to channel the former PM with her sartorial choices and PR strategy.
Pictures of Truss driving a tank while on a visit to Estonia in 2021, and visiting Moscow in a fur coat and hat this year, seemed designed to emulate famous snaps of Thatcher during her premiership. And during the first Tory leadership debate on Channel 4 last month, Truss wore a white pussybow blouse and dark blazer that looked exactly like Thatcher’s outfit in a 1979 election broadcast.
While he can’t out-Thatcher Truss with his personal style, Sunak has instead argued that he is the candidate the former PM would most agree with on economic policy.
As the contest entered the final round of its parliamentary stages, Sunak gave an interview to the Telegraph — the paper most read by Conservative party members — in which he likened his upbringing to hers, described his economic policy as “common-sense Thatcherism” and said that hearing the former PM talk about family budgeting “very powerfully … resonated with me.”
A week later, Sunak penned a comment piece for the Telegraph again where he repeated his devotion to Thatcher like a mantra: “My values are Thatcherite. I believe in hard work, family and integrity. I am a Thatcherite, I am running as a Thatcherite and I will govern as a Thatcherite.” That weekend he gave a speech in Thatcher’s birthplace of Grantham, Lincolnshire, where his wife Akshata Murthy was photographed taking selfies with Thatcher’s statue.
There are obvious electoral reasons Truss and Sunak are so unabashedly going down this path. “Thatcherite” is the most popular label Tory members use to describe their politics, according to a 2019 YouGov survey, with 56 per cent choosing it.
The next two most popular labels — “free-market Conservatives” and “traditionalists” — are effectively synonymous to Thatcherism, while under a third of those polled said they identified as the more centrist descriptor, “one nation Tories.”
The same survey found Thatcher’s favorability rating with the party faithful was 93 percent, beaten only by wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill at 95 percent.
Thatcherite ministers have taken to carrying out purity tests in the press. Peter Lilley — a key Thatcher loyalist before he effectively ended her career in 1990 by privately telling her she should stand down — wrote for the Sun giving Sunak “top marks for Thatcherite courage” and suggesting that, like her, he is electable. The Observer ran quotes from succession of Thatcherite cabinet ministers Chris Patten, Norman Lamont and Malcolm Rifkind criticizing Truss over her tax-cutting plans.
On the other hand John Redwood, who headed Thatcher’s policy unit and now supports Truss, said that “a visit to Grantham will not make Rishi Sunak a Thatcherite” and that “Conservative members will not be conned. They liked Margaret’s big tax cuts, wider ownership, pro business and growth.”
The other element in play is the desire by both candidates to appeal to the right-wing press. “They know that the Telegraph turned against Johnson because he wasn’t Thatcherite enough — he wasn’t cutting taxes, he wasn’t shrinking the state,” Seldon said.
Red wall jitters
For some, Thatcher’s re-emergence is largely due to the U.K.’s dire economic context.
Paul Goodman, editor of the ConservativeHome website, said he believed after the 2019 election — which Johnson won in a landslide victory — that the Tories had put Thatcher “well and truly behind them” by converting swathes of former Labour strongholds in parts of the country that once vehemently opposed Thatcher. At the time, Goodman described Johnson, who diverged in this way from the standard Tory election-winning formula of focusing on the southern middle classes, as “the first Conservative leader since Thatcher to shake off her shadow.”
Fast forward three years and Thatcher is back in a big way. “Why? The answer to that in a single word is economics,” Goodman said. “Now that we find ourselves in a situation that looks quite like the 1970s — inflation, energy price rises, strikes — one naturally tends to ask how the Conservative politicians of the era approached them. And the leading politician of the 1970s was, of course, Thatcher.”
The Maggie love-in might work with Tory party members, but it’s unlikely to play as well among the swing voters in so-called red wall constituencies who backed the Tories for the first time in 2019.
Thatcher, who took on the miners’ unions to shut down collieries in the 70s and 80s, is still deeply unpopular in those areas. Johnson got into hot water with his MPs when he said Thatcher had helped the environment by shutting down the mines.
Unsurprisingly, some red wall Tory MPs are keen to play down their party’s hang-up with Thatcher. “The only people talking about Thatcher are the media,” said Lee Anderson, the Tory MP for Ashfield. “I am supporting Liz Truss and she is not claiming to be the new Maggie as she is her own woman with her own ideas. The idea that she is portraying herself as a new Maggie is something the press would want everyone to believe.”
Other red wall MPs insist it’s not a concern. “Thatcher was so long ago and I just don’t get her coming up any more on doorsteps, other than people who are never going to vote for us anyway,” one said. “I just think the red wall wants a conviction politician who gets stuff done — if either Rishi or Liz demonstrate that, it won’t matter how many times they’ve been Thatcher fanboys or girls.”