The Lady's not for copying, Tony

The Labour leader does share characteristics with Thatcher - but he should learn from her excesses
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The Independent Online
Don't let your jaw drop when Tony Blair praises Margaret Thatcher's determination. He has long been compared with her, not least by pundits, and likes the comparison. Who wouldn't? She was one of the very few titans of post-war British politics, the only figure whose domestic influence may live on as De Gaulle's has in France.

Cartoonists have found a physical resemblance, and there is at times a certain glint in Blair's eye that reminds one of the Lady. To compare the two is, of course, to compare early glimmerings of promise with a historical record. But their characters have real similarities - the restlessness, the relish for confrontation, the enthusiasm for upping any ante they happen across. They see politics as an exercise of will, and of long- term strategy. In that, among politicians, they are rare.

This week, that comparison is bound to be reinforced. Blair's great success in winning huge majorities for reforming Clause IV from constituency parties suggests he may be developing the kind of rapport with Labour Party members that Thatcher enjoyed with her footsoldiers. And it's a growing army. Since its low point, Labour has gained almost as many new recruits as the Liberal Democrats have in total.

At the special conference this weekend Blair will probably be rapturously received. Conservative strategists, sounding distinctly gruntle- deprived, have already been complaining that it will be a mere propaganda show, rather American, shallow, made for television. This is the sort of thing that Labour used to say about Thatcher's party conferences. The technical term for it is jealousy.

Is it, though, possible to admire the politician while hating the politics? What sends shivers through the Labour left (though perhaps they are the half-pleasurable shivers of righteous vindication) is that Blair's admiration extends well beyond Thatcher's ``clear sense of an identifiable project'' to many of her instincts.

As John Rentoul pointed out in yesterday's Independent, Blair's preferred language of clear moral choices, individual responsibility and self-discipline echoes hers. But there is no coincidence in that - they are appealing to the same people, the working-class and middle-class voters who lap up tough attitudes on crime or an insistence on discipline and achievement in schools.

Put aside the labels left and right and you see a Labour attempt to find a populist agenda that echoes hers. Gordon Brown, for instance, who remains a key intellectual influence, is currently looking at the share-option tycoons, the privatised electricity and gas companies and the behaviour of the high street banks towards small business: it is a ``little bloke'' agenda in the making. Labour realises that the Thatcher recruits of the Eighties can be the Blair voters of the late Nineties.

How far can such a crossover go? Clearly, Blair and Thatcher have wholly different attitudes to Europe, political reform, industrial policy, nuclear disarmament and the reality or otherwise of ``society''.

On the other hand, a Labour government under Blair would take ``right- wing'' decisions which the post-Thatcher Tories have been unable to. Brown as Chancellor would move much further towards Bank of England independence than Kenneth Clarke has done. And those looking at ministers for evidence of a new privacy law are looking in entirely the wrong direction. If it comes, it will come from a future Labour government.

In the end, though, the Blair-Thatcher comparison is less about policy than about the nature of political leadership. Blair is taking a gamble, and the use of Thatcher's name is part of that gamble: it is an emblem of the express-train style of government he wants for Britain. It would be an administration, he's saying, conducted at full hurtle.

John Major embodies a much gentler, more cautious style of politics. You wouldn't find him voluntarily bringing the words Margaret Thatcher into conversation, as Blair does. Not, at least, in a positive way. Major's brand of Toryism, now refined by Norman Blackwell, the new Number 10 policy man, is about selling reassurance and solace. As such, it depends upon blackening the memory of the Thatcher style almost as much as Blair's New Labour depends upon evoking it.

Here, the crossover is striking: the Tory Prime Minister must pretend to admire the Thatcher inheritance, while winking furiously at the public; the Labour leader is meant to hate the inheritance, yet signals that he admires the Lady.

The contrast could not now be sharper. If Major's reputation revives it will be as the great holder-together of a hysterical party, the calm voice in a frantic world, the understated pragmatist who quietly trudges on - the leader, as he would have it, of the grown-ups' party. People talk about him as a modern Baldwin. One might as justly call him the Tory Callaghan.

Which is right? Electorally, it is Tony Blair. He is also offering the tingle of optimism, however faint, in a weary time. Each time he risks himself, and pushes the game on, he seems to benefit, and so does Labour. At some stage he will overreach himself. That is in the nature of the man. But the next week, only a little chastened, and hardened by the crowing of his enemies, he will be back, and pushing some more. That is in his nature too.

When it comes to the business of government, however, Major's experience of the Thatcher era is worth reflecting on. He, after all, has been living with her political inheritance. He knows that it includes a splintered party, most of whose best politicians have been lost to government through resignation or dismissal, and a legacy of bitterness that will poison Tory politics for a generation.

Margaret Thatcher's political failings, including her excessive reliance on a small group of courtiers, her excessive distaste for less radical members of her own party, and her excessive self-certainty, may be inherent in any leader of her type. But they add up to a powerful warning to anyone who would follow that path.

Were Tony Blair to model himself on Lady Thatcher, in short, he would be aiming too low. Her insistent question - ``one of us?'' - steadily weakened the Tory coalition she led but never loved. It drove her towards paranoia and megalomania and made the eventual wreckage of her project and party inevitable. Well, Blair said it himself - she was a better destroyer than creator.

Thus far, Blair has proved himself to be a creative, open and wholly unparanoid politician. But he has reached the stage when even thinking about Thatcher must do him more harm than good. A leftish version of her would be a politician who failed truly to rejuvenate the democracy and restore faith in Labour, as he determines to do. A second Thatcher? Better by far to be an original Blair.

This looks set to be a wonderful week for him, a week he thoroughly deserves. During ancient Roman triumphs, the general dressed as a god had a slave beside him murmuring all the while, ``memento mori''. Perhaps, if its budget stretches far enough, the Blair team might invest in just one more adviser to stand beside him muttering, ``But she went bananas.''