Thatcher's spectre still haunts the feast

Blair has never been ashamed of paying tribute to the economic achievements of Thatcherism ... But Major must defend the whole 18 years, the bad with the good
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The Independent Online
Her sworn enemies may like to think of her as a Mrs Rochester, lurking embarrassingly in the attic. But she remains one of the dominant figures of the late 20th century. She is still capable of casting her long shadow over the election campaign, as John Major implicitly admitted yesterday outside Downing Street when he clarified that he would be fighting less on his own six-year record than on the whole 18 since she came to power.

Lady Thatcher still makes news, which is why she made her brief appearance on a Belgravia doorstep to endorse the Conservative Party and Mr Major yesterday. It was the least she could do in the face of increasingly persistent evidence that she has been saying in private words to the effect that Tony Blair is a patriot and wouldn't do Britain down. Her core message was clear enough. But her exhortation to "stay with us and Prime Minister Major until we cross the finishing line" bordered on the gnomic. She did not quite explain what she meant by saying "Mr Blair is different from Prime Minister Blair". And she did not deny outright, as she had the opportunity to do, accounts of her private musings.

But even if she had, we have Tribune's report, less than wholeheartedly dismissed, that the editor of The Times, Peter Stothard, had Thatcher in mind when he quoted a very senior Conservative along those lines. We have the explicit word of the journalist, Thatcher disciple and Blair convert Paul Johnson that that is what she thinks. I am now told that at two private dinners, one in New York for Nancy Reagan and another recently for a distinguished statesman in London, she said something pretty similar. This is beginning to look anything but a chance slip of the tongue.

So why should all this matter? First a gigantic health warning: Blair has never been ashamed about paying tribute to the big economic changes Thatcher made: including trade union reform, which Labour had tried and failed to do a decade earlier, and privatisation, which it had never even dreamt of. But he has never disguised his view that she failed to see the price the country was paying in the social decay, poverty and hopelessness suffered by those whom Major admitted on Saturday were the "have-nots". Blair has never shared Lady Thatcher's brand of tribalism, so clearly expressed when Peter Walker suggested to her those who had not bought their council houses should be given them: "What will our people say if we give their people their houses? She did not like the term "one nation". Blair lives and breathes it.

Rather unusually, both are interested in ideology. Both are, to co- opt a phrase of Tony Benn's, teacher-politicians. Both wanted to eliminate old-style socialism. And in doing so she as well as he probably did a lot to save the Labour Party from itself. Blair among Labour politicians saw her strengths most clearly: when she fell in 1990 he actually thought the Tories had made an error by getting rid of her. And on Europe, the issue which Lady Thatcher presumably has most in mind and on which she has therefore covertly done him the greatest service, she appears correctly to have identified that he is not a seller-out. Which is understandable; the sceptical tone of Blair's article in The Sun yesterday, drawing coveted approval in the paper's editorial, locates him, roughly speaking, as mid- period Thatcher. (About the time when she negotiated the hugely favourable British rebate at Fontainbleau and well before she lost her rag at Rome II.) Even the pro-European in Blair recognises that some of the criticisms sceptics make of the EU are actually true.

It may also be that Thatcher recognises a potentially hegemonic figure when she sees one. David Willetts, one of the Major regime's chief theoreticians, told an audience in Bath last week that Blair was embracing the ideas of West European social democracy just when they were being abandoned in continental Europe. That has an elegant ring to it, but it is not quite right. Social Democrats in Germany, France, and elsewhere are now gripped by the Blair saga precisely because they believe he is answering the question they have failed to answer: how to be a successful party of the centre-left in non-corporatist, deregulatory, free-trading times. If Blair wins it will have as energising and modernising an effect on the European left as Thatcher did on the free market right. He will have leap-frogged European social democracy.

Major's role as legatee, despite yesterday's endorsement, is more complicated. He too is different from Thatcher. He has seriously attempted to make a fresh start in Europe. He genuinely wanted a "nation at ease with itself". He resisted turning the Gulf War into a party political issue before the 1992 election. And he is commendably resisting pressure to make immigration one now.

But Major is imprisoned by a past which he failed to escape when he took office. He never made, perhaps could not make, the big party conference speech in 1990 which might have said: "We got many things right in the 1980s but we got a lot wrong too. This is a new government, with a new approach." The price he pays is to have to defend the long 18-year record of this government, the bad with the good. He cannot pick and choose. Blair can.

And "time for a change" becomes all the more forceful an argument for his opponents when it is applied not just to the six years for which Major has been in office. That is one reason why it now looks as if those - Essex man, Worcester woman and Ford Sierra owner - who went directly from Labour to Thatcher's Conservatives in 1979 have retraced their steps. Another is that Blair's transformation of Labour makes him look a leader like her and not a manager like Major. All of which she may realise when she pays him those compliments from time to time. She is an honest woman - will she be able to resists saying so publicly if and when Blair wins?