The ghost in the Tory machine

Five years on, the spirit of Margaret Thatcher can be detected in the conformism of the Major era
Five years on and what of her spirit remains? On this day in 1990, Britain was waking up to read the text of Margaret Thatcher's resignation statement. The political world was digesting her extraordinary last performance in the Commons. Rival candidates were looking in the mirror and asking themselves in the cold morning light: am I man enough to succeed her?

Five years on, there is no monument to Baroness Thatcher. She herself lives on in London and in aeroplanes, an unquiet ghost, a presence rumoured, not seen or heard. She doesn't speak freely to her nation, but privately and for cash to conclaves of rich Americans.

The woman who was once a political iconoclast, a radical force of world class, is reduced to the level of an exiled Stuart, restlessly travelling and remembering past glories. The memoirs and memorial television programmes have been made and sold. She gave up the Commons, barely functions in the House of Lords, has produced no works of polemic or political thought and gives hardly any interviews. Of other ex-prime ministers in modern times, Heath and Macmillan have had livelier retirements. But as a political player, Lady Thatcher herself, once the liveliest of all, is as dead, as long-gone, as Peel or Gladstone.

In one sense, this is admirable. The occasional outburst aside, she has left the field clear for her successor. In return, he has not repudiated her openly, as it once seemed that he might. When she went, some of the younger cabinet ministers rejoiced and compared themselves to the prisoners from Fidelio, marching into the light.

Yet no new dawn broke. It was, to adapt Norman Lamont's phrase about the economy, a false dusk. On most of the key questions, the Major administration has turned out to be the post-Thatcher administration. She would have signed at Maastricht, too. In that odd little border town, with its Christmas lights and cobbles, she would have argued up to the line, then done the deal, as she always had. Since then, Major has adopted a ''Europe of nations'' rhetoric which is remarkably similar to Thatcher in her Bruges speech.

On the economy, it has been the same story. Taxes and spending rose during the recession; as a pragmatist, Thatcher would have let them rise too. She would have been in the ERM, expelled, and similarly cross. She would have spoken in similar terms at the Mansion House, talking of reducing the state's share of spending. She would have fought inflation, though perhaps less fiercely than John Major.

The last-generation privatisation attempts, whether abortive like the Post Office or rumbling on like rail, might or might not have been too far for her. She was wary of privatising all those little Queen's heads. But they are the sort of thing a Thatcher administration in 1995 might have been up to. Would she have lived up to her hot, morally impeccable, out-of-office words on Bosnia had she still been in Downing Street? An intriguing question, but an unanswerable one.

Had she stayed, it is not impossible that she would have won again in 1992. Most Tories assume that she would have lost, clinging to the poll tax as she sank. Many of her former lieutenants disagree. She would have tempered her style. There would have been no Christian Democrat breakaway over Europe, no CDP adventure to match the SDP in the Eighties.

A Thatcher government now would have been different, above all, in its people. Norman Lamont as Chancellor? Michael Howard as Foreign Secretary? Michael Heseltine, surely, restricted to a happy retirement with secateurs in his arboretum, making speeches about Asia.

But in fact, had she gone on and stayed in office, she probably wouldn't have been Prime Minister by now. We would have had a smoother succession - to, well, John Major. Five years on, had the Cabinet rallied to her on that dark winter evening, we might well have been living under a Major government carrying out Thatcher policies.

Which, of course, we are. There would have been more of a sense of forward movement, probably, and continuity, certainly, but the broad thrust of government policy would have been similar. The point about 1990 is not that the party foolishly changed course, but that it failed to seize its opportunity to do so.

For Thatcher radicalism was a strictly limited project. It was about hacking back some familiar rivals to Westminster and Downing Street - the trade unions, the federalist bureaucracy of the European Union, local government, and a few of the more irritating instances of the liberal establishment, such as the BBC. Financial deregulation and lower taxes were to unharness the energies of the middle classes and the South. The rest was inessential.

The release of national energy that she accomplished, at considerable cost, between 1979 and, say, 1988, was not repeatable. Her rhetoric about the small state was matched by extreme political caution about preserving public services, particularly for the middle classes. There was no second wave of Thatcherite revolution available, because the next obvious areas for reform included the political establishment itself. She had done for Britain all that a centralist, politically conservative free-marketeer could. Had she gone on, she would have become, increasingly, the Prime Minister for the status quo.

It may seem, in retrospect, too fantastic to imagine a post-Thatcher Tory party that was prepared to think hard about the quango state, about the need to rebuild some stable system of local democracy, about Scotland (though we await Major's proposals later this month) about the House of Lords and about a positive agenda for European politics. This is not what conservative parties are generally for. Yet it would have taken such a Tory conversion for the party to have changed the country in the Nineties as dramatically as it had in the Eighties.

Instead, we have been marking time as a country since she went.

I don't mean that nothing worthy of comment has happened. There have been useful bureaucratic reforms, holding operations, both at home and abroad, and difficult exercises in parliamentary party management. There has been a noticeable slowing of the federalist movement. Perhaps most significant of all, Labour, beaten yet again, has moved further to the centre and to pro-market positions than anyone would have dreamt possible a few years earlier. So things have changed.

But none of it has given us a stronger sense of our own future, or made us more self-confident and better prepared. We have grown older as a country, not younger. Because Margaret Thatcher was responsible for the last great era of change, it is easy to look back and think that her passing marked the passing of energy from politics.

I believe the opposite is true, that the Conservatives as rulers and the rest of us as ruled have suffered from her late legacy of political centralism and her unimaginative conformism about power and the British state. After her early years, she became ever more the political establishment and ever less the rebel. Her spirit has been influential, but instead of pointing to new challenges, provoking and exciting, it has been a dour, minatory, governessy presence. And she has said little to the country since she left, because she has had nothing striking to say.