The battle over Thatcher's legacy is a battle for the future

The PM has never established an authentic public voice - and Conservative adulation of Thatcher in the wake of her death casts the Cameron in a poor light

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Politics never stops, not for a  moment. When a leader dies the debate about his or her legacy becomes much more about the present and the future than about the past. Listen to David Cameron and Ed Miliband speak about Margaret Thatcher and they are acting very politically, their words the product of a thousand calculations as to how they will be viewed once the current, funereal frenzy has subsided. When Conservative MPs and their newspapers give adulatory verdicts on a leader who has not uttered a public word for years they too do so with the present in mind. They yearn vaguely for another Thatcher-style leader even if they have much less idea what form such a leader would take.

Even the act of recalling parliament yesterday was highly political. No 10 was frantically briefing on Monday afternoon that the Speaker had agreed to the move before it had asked him. I would not be surprised if John Bercow had some reservations, perhaps wondering if Cameron had hoped to gain an electoral lift by giving fresh parliamentary momentum to the current Princess Diana-like hysteria. I suspect his calculations were more multilayered and partly defensive, fearing a single sentence from an MP or from the army of Thatcher-adoring columnists that he had not done enough to pay homage. Even if the Speaker had his doubts, he agreed to the recall, knowing that he too would be slaughtered if he had made the reasonable suggestion that MPs could wait until next Monday when the recess was over.

For Cameron, the revival of Thatcher-mania is especially challenging. He has never established a fully developed authentic public voice, a consequence of his unresolved ambiguity in relation to Thatcher. In terms of policy, he is a Thatcherite, the real-terms public spending cuts, revolutionary NHS reforms, free schools, a referendum on Europe, sweeping welfare reforms. Indeed, as I argued on Tuesday, Thatcher would not have gone anywhere near as far as Cameron has done without securing a proper mandate. Her genius was in sensing when she could get away with acting dangerously.

But in spite of the right-wing policy agenda Cameron is a Thatcherite with a few nagging doubts. After the Conservatives’ three election defeats he concluded – sensibly – that the Conservatives could only win by claiming to be on the centre ground. So he has chosen to sound more like Harold Macmillan and, of course, Tony Blair. His most famous soundbite, “There is such a thing as society – it’s just not the same thing as the state”, is the key text for understanding his confusion. On the surface the words sound like a compassionate rebuttal of Thatcher’s famous argument that there was no such thing as society. But a reading of the speech in which she made the brutal claim shows that she was asserting precisely the same point as Cameron. Both were advocating a smaller state, while calling on charities and voluntary groups to fill the gap.

Osborne has given up making speeches on why he is a progressive and cites Thatcher unequivocally as his model

At first Cameron’s ambiguous voice worked quite well for him, convincing some progressives that he was genuinely moving on from Thatcher and yet keeping his Thatcher-worshipping party more or less on board. But recently he has been in the worst of all worlds. Those on the centre left, even the so-called Blairite wing of this very broad church, have seen through his claims to be a centrist progressive, while ardent Thatcherites regard him as a woolly leftie. In her death Cameron has a pivotal decision to make. Does his public voice develop to reflect his Thatcherite policies more clearly – or will he make a more substantial attempt to develop a genuinely fresh post- Thatcher Tory pitch at the next election?

George Osborne has already decided. Although a sincere social liberal, Osborne has given up making speeches on why he is a progressive and cites Thatcher unequivocally as his model. He did so in his last party conference speech, where he compared her resolution with the U-turns of Heath. On Tuesday, in an elegantly written article for the Times, proof that he would be a terrific columnist, the Chancellor was even more forthright.

Writing of the pressure on him from a Tory to produce a Thatcherite Budget, he wrote: “I politely pointed out that the famous 1981 Budget had actually increased taxes substantially, in a determined attempt to bring the deficit down and lower interest rates — and that I was trying to do something similar, principally by cutting spending”.

After his attempt to link the ugly Philpott case to a wider debate about welfare reform Osborne is more openly a Thatcherite, both tonally and in his economic approach. Given their closeness, presumably Cameron will do the same, even though in the autumn of 2005, during the leadership contest he told me he would never lapse rightwards, whatever the pressure from his party and the newspapers.

Ironically, in failing to move on from Thatcher in the defining areas of the economy, public services and foreign policy, Cameron and Osborne make an error she would never have committed. She learnt from the past and left it behind, applying fresh ideas or very old ones from the 19th century, to the distinct crisis of the 1970s. Not for one second did she agonise about following the style and policies of Macmillan, let alone Heath. Yet Cameron and Osborne feel compelled to follow her.

The continuing, bewildered confusion of the Conservative leadership about how to deal with the Lady gives space to Ed Miliband, although he too is obsessed by Thatcher. He and his team have scrutinised her 1979 manifesto, the final party conference speech she made as Leader of the Opposition in 1978, the language she deployed in the late 1970s, and the degree to which she linked policy detail with the language. In a Radio 4 documentary earlier this year, Miliband told me that he hoped to be the left of centre equivalent, responding to the crisis in light regulation capitalism as she did to the collapse of 1970s’ corporatism. The ease with which he delivered his tribute in the Commons yesterday comes from its authenticity. When he praised her for recognising “Ideology mattered… ideas matter in politics” and for challenging “the prevailing consensus” he was making a wider point about his own approach.

In terms of the battle for the present and future, Miliband is closer to the spirit of Thatcher in challenging the prevailing consensus than Cameron, who knows he must move on from her but cannot bring himself to do so.

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