Candidates for the post of British Prime Minister imitate others: Margaret Thatcher

LONDON. When Rishi Sunak launched his campaign for UK Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister on Saturday, the choice of venue – a tire shop in the market town of Grantham – seemed almost inevitable. Grantham is the home of Margaret Thatcher, a right-wing icon who figures prominently in every Conservative leadership competition, but never more so than in these economically tight times.

mr. Sunak and his opponent Liz Truss compete to take on the mantle of Thatcher, who was prime minister from 1979 to 1990. at home, and her strong defense of Western democracy abroad.

“We have to be radical,” said Mr. Sunak, who, like Mr. Farm, worked in the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and is responsible for some of the economic policies he now proposes to sweep away. Mr. Sunak’s agenda is, he told party supporters, “common sense Thatcherism.”

But Thatcher experts say candidates are choosing the legacy of a woman known as The Iron Lady,” emphasizing elements that are pleasing to the public, glossing over less appetizing ones, like some tax increase in 1981during the depth of the recession, at a time when she was determined to rein in runaway inflation.

“When Rishi and Truss refer to Thatcher, they both say something right, but neither of them tells the whole truth,” said Charles Moore, former editor of The Daily Telegraph, who wrote a three-volume biography of Thatcher. “Truss is right in saying that she believed in lower taxes and less regulation,” he said, “but when Rishi says she cares about financial responsibility, that’s also true.”

While both candidates promise to cut taxes, Mr. Sunak, a former chancellor of the exchequer, says that this can happen only after inflation is curbed. He blames Mr. Truss for not talking about the fiscal implications or counting “fairy tales”. His approach echoed Thatcher’s belief in book balancing and her dislike of borrowing, which she saw as a burden on future generations.

However, none of the candidates seem to have the guts to run the full Thatcher script. Like them, she made a bet on Downing Street in era of rapid inflation and labor unrest, albeit at much higher tax rates. Her economic shock therapy — which included a massive increase in the sales tax — kept inflation in check, but at the cost of a deep recession and mass unemployment.

It is much easier to direct Thatcher than Mrs. Truss does it stylistically. As foreign minister, Mr Truss seems to have modeled her appearances on the international stage closely followed the Iron Lady, copying famous images, including one of Thatcher at the tank turret in West Germany. She even started wearing a silk blouse with a bow, a familiar piece of Thatcher’s wardrobe.

Even if this caused chuckles in London political circles, some analysts said they did not blame Ms. for this. Farm. Its target audience is about 160,000 members of the Conservative Party. who will choose the next leader. For these voters, many of whom are older and far right, Thatcher remains a revered figure second only to Winston Churchill in the Tory pantheon. Some compare her status to the canonization of Ronald Reagan among ordinary Republicans in the United States.

“It’s a huge legacy,” said Matthew Goodwin, professor of political science at the University of Kent. “It is difficult to overestimate the influence that Margaret Thatcher still has on the broad masses of conservatives.”

mr. Moore said this because Mr Truss is a woman, the comparison to Thatcher was inevitable and she could use that to her advantage. But he asked if she had gone too far, risking becoming a parody of herself.

“Wearing Thatcher clothes is dangerous because often they don’t fit her,” he said. “Truss, at least, is not yet a great figure.”

Remembering Thatcher on the world stage, Ms. Truss’s message seems to be that only she can take on Russian President Vladimir V. Putin the way her hero took on the Soviets. Mrs. Truss once put forward the idea of ​​arming Taiwan; she and mr. This week, Sunak exchanged views on who would be tougher on China.

The sparring continued during a televised debate on the BBC on Monday evening. An aggressive Mr. Sunak accused Ms. Truss of suggesting a “short-term sugar rush of unfunded tax cuts”, while Ms. Truss said Mr. Sunak’s tax hike would stifle UK growth prospects. “There are indeed differences here,” she said.

Hot as it is, the debate didn’t come up with any major surprises, which is likely for Ms. B. Truss wins as she has a solid lead in recent party membership polls, and Mr. Analysts say Sunak needs to shake up the race.

Mrs. Truss dismissed suggestions that she was directing Thatcher. She noted that she paved her own way to the top of British politics, although there are parallels: both women were brought up in middle-class families and studied at Oxford University. But Mrs Thatcher was president of the University’s Conservative Association. Truss was a Liberal Democrat.

“It is very frustrating that women politicians are always compared to Margaret Thatcher, while male politicians are not compared to Ted Heath,” she said. Truss stated this in a recent interview with a television company. UK News, referring to another Conservative prime minister. (She defiantly did not mention Churchill.)

It is on economic policy that Mrs. Truss and Thatcher diverge most clearly. Mrs. Truss’s call for immediate tax cuts was questioned by Norman Lamont, who was Chief Secretary of the Treasury under Thatcher. He noted that despite some high-profile cuts in income tax rates between 1979 and 1981, on a net basis Mrs Thatcher raised taxes more than she cut them.

mr. Sunak has a different problem: the current inflationary spiral is at least partly a legacy of his leadership of the economy. with its huge public spending to protect people from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Mrs. Truss’ defenders portray him as the architect of economic malaise.

“A visit to Grantham will not make Rishi Sunak a Thatcher supporter,” wrote John Redwood, a right-wing Conservative MP who once headed Thatcher’s Downing Street political desk. on twitter. “In the seven years that I have known him, he never once asked me about Margaret Thatcher or her economic policy, despite the fact that he knew that I was her economic and political adviser in the middle period.”

This did not stop Mr. Sunak from quoting Thatcher in his speech or his wife, Akshata Murthytaking a selfie in front of her statue in Grantham. Despite their very different ethnic backgrounds – Mr. Sunak’s parents are Indians who immigrated to the UK from East Africa – there are parallels too: d. Sunak’s mother owned a pharmacy; Father Thatcher grocery store.

Perhaps the more important question is whether it makes electoral sense for the Conservatives to continue to nurture the Thatcher cult.

While her “raise your bootstraps” message appealed to some working-class voters, Thatcher, who died in 2013, which never conquered the industrial north of the country, where its shock therapy and battles with the miners’ unions left an indelible bitter aftertaste. mr. Johnson managed to convert some of these voters in 2019and the party would need to keep them to fend off the Labor Party in the next general election.

When Mr. Johnson campaigned in these emasculated industrial areas, he rarely mentioned Thatcher—and for good reason. “Even today, Margaret Thatcher is considered incredibly toxic,” said Prof. Goodwin.