With its unstinting praise of a “great leader, a great prime minister and a great Briton”, David Cameron’s paean to Margaret Thatcher was all that might be expected. But the death of so illustrious a predecessor is not only a time of commendations and condolences. There are also immediate political consequences that are far from benign.
Despite the 23 years that have passed since the Iron Lady was ousted from Downing Street by her own once-awestruck MPs, the Tories remain wholly in her shadow. Throughout his tenure, Mr Cameron has trodden carefully, attempting to “detoxify” the “nasty party” of which she was – rightly or wrongly – emblematic, without leaving himself open to charges of disloyalty. “There is such a thing as society,” he ventured when he won the leadership in 2005, “it’s just not the same thing as the state”.
Baroness Thatcher’s death brings a certain liberation. Mr Cameron is no longer constrained, even symbolically; the past can be treated as the past. Except that his increasingly unruly party, smarting at the restrictions of coalition, is as avowedly Thatcherite as ever.
Nor are such sentiments restricted to the old guard. Of the 148 new Tory MPs elected in 2010, the vast majority are Mrs Thatcher’s children. And as tributes are delivered in the hastily recalled House of Commons today – some of them by its newest members – comparisons between the mythologised past and the frustrating present cannot fail to be made.
Mr Cameron will not come out well. Where she won three elections, he failed to oust a tired incumbent who oversaw the worst economic crisis since the Depression. Where she was radically effective, his hands are tied by Liberal Democrat obstinacy on every Thatcherite tenet from tax cuts to employment regulations to Europe. Where she has become the archetype of the conviction politician, his more trenchant critics dismiss him as a mere “PR man”.
Sometimes death draws a line. For Mr Cameron, at least, this one will not.