The Thatcher factor: can Tory leadership hopefuls win by channelling the Iron Lady?

Candidates have described the late former PM as a ‘hero’ and ‘inspirational’

Margaret Thatcher with her cabinet
Margaret Thatcher with her cabinet at the 1989 Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Tory leadership candidates including Rishi Sunak are looking to the example set by Margaret Thatcher as they compete to become the next prime minister.

Sunak told The Telegraph that if he succeeds in his bid to replace Boris Johnson as Conservative leader, “we will cut taxes and we will do it responsibly”. The former chancellor added: “I would describe it as common sense Thatcherism.”

The so-called Iron Lady is looming large in the Conservative leadership campaign, with a growing number of candidates citing her in their campaign videos and speeches.

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The ‘great lady’

In his first campaign interview, Sunak “likened Baroness Thatcher’s upbringing above her father’s grocery shop to his childhood helping in his mother’s pharmacy”, The Telegraph’s political editor Ben Riley-Smith reported.

“She talked about the person at home with their family budget,” Sunak said. “She talked about that really powerfully. That resonated with me, because that’s how I was brought up.”

Nadhim Zahawi, who replaced Sunak as chancellor, has also compared his economic plans to those overseen by Thatcher. Launching his campaign, Zahawi said that “finally, after too many years of tax and spending skyrocketing, the political landscape is once again coming back to the sensible policies championed by the great lady, Margaret Thatcher”.

As other candidates also point to the late PM, Unherd’s Will Lloyd concluded that “the sun that burns above the Conservative party, still, is not Churchill or Johnson – it’s Margaret Thatcher”.

Animals and motorbikes

Liz Truss was accused of trying to emulate Thatcher after posing in a tank in Estonia last November, an image that echoed a 1983 photo of Thatcher in a tank in Germany.

Foreign Secretary Truss denied the claim. But according to the Daily Mail, her photo opportunities “with animals and even motorbikes” also “match up with pictures of Mrs Thatcher from the 1970s and 1980s”. And language experts told the news site earlier this year that Truss had adopted a noticeably deeper tone of voice, as Thatcher did after entering politics.

The comparisons between the two women have continued during the leadership campaign.Times columnist Matthew Parris told LBC this week that Truss was “cavorting around pretending to be Margaret Thatcher”.

Penny Mordaunt appears to be another Thatcher fan. The leadership hopeful launched her bid with what the The Independent described as a “bombastic” video featuring images of Thatcher and Winston Churchill. “We are the most successful party in our nation’s history because we more often reflect its values,” the narrator says. “Our greatest heroes have been the living embodiment of them.”

Trade Secretary Mordaunt last year recalled how Thatcher wrote to her after she failed to win election as an MP in 2005. “She told me to get back on the horse,” Mordaunt tweeted. “She encouraged as well as inspired. She saw that as her responsibility. That’s leadership.”

‘Recognisable echo’

Suella Braverman has named Thatcher and Churchill as her inspirations too. In a dig at her Labour shadow, Emily Thornberry, earlier this year, Attorney General Braverman told the Commons that “my heroes are Churchill and Thatcher, hers are Lenin and Corbyn”.

The two former PMs have also been cited as “personal heroes” of Kemi Badenoch, who is “one of the few Tory leadership hopefuls who has never held a cabinet level job”, said the London Evening Standard.

“It’s easy to see why Tories like Badenoch,” wrote The Critic’s sketchwriter Robert Hutton. “There is, in her total refusal to accept the world as she finds it, a recognisable echo of Margaret Thatcher.”

Thatcherite dogma

Whether Thatcher is the best choice of inspiration for would-be Tory leaders is a matter of some debate.

“Britain needs Macmillan, not Thatcher,” wrote Unherd’s foreign affairs editor Aris Roussinos, in a reference to postwar PM Harold Macmillan. But instead, “the potential successors scrabbling around their podiums for Johnson’s crown have retreated to the safe space of Thatcherite dogma, promising to shrink the state just when the state’s protective hand will be needed more than ever”.

Michael Jacobs, professor of political economy at Sheffield University, agreed that the Conservatives’ “continuing preoccupation” with Thatcher is “unhelpful”. The British economy today is “fundamentally different from the one that confronted Thatcher when she was in Downing Street”, Jacobs wrote on LSE Blogs.

“Given that they must appeal to an almost entirely Thatcherite electorate – first their fellow MPs and then the wider Tory party membership – we should not really be surprised at all this,” he added. But “their preference for ideological nostalgia over economic reality will risk making our already weak economy even weaker”.

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