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Thatcher's lessons for Cameron

The newspapers are full this morning of accounts of Margaret Thatcher's first period in government. Her official papers have been released under the thirty year rule.

In The Daily Mail Peter Oborne draws four lessons from her papers for David Cameron to study.  I summarise them below and add a fifth lesson.

Lesson1 Peter Oborne argues that Mrs Thatcher's papers reveal that "Cabinet ministers such as Jim Prior, Sir Geoffrey Howe and Christopher Soames (Winston Churchill's son-in-law) were either too lazy, too cowardly or too disloyal to carry out her commands."

She certainly scribbled strong messages across ministerial papers:

"Thoroughly deficient in content"... "much too sketchy"... "this will not do"... and simply "no".

Margaret Thatcher had her Praetorian Guard of ministers. "Margaret Thatcher had Keith Joseph and Norman Tebbit to support her," writes Oborne, "Cameron will need George Osborne to steer through bold economic reforms and Michael Gove to implement a radical upheaval of education policy if he is to make any mark at all."  Expect the tough-minded Ken Clarke to play a big role in the early years of a Cameron government. His struggles with ambulance drivers in the past show that he is ready to bruise where necessary.

Lesson2 Margaret Thatcher inherited a desperate economic situation and acted with boldness from day one, says Oborne. In reality some of the most bold action didn't begin until 1981 when she was free of her pre-election pledge to honour public sector pay awards. Of all the Thatcher-Howe budgets it was the March 1981 budget that caused most controversy. It cut spending and raised taxation at the bottom of a recession; the very opposite of prevailing Keynesian orthodoxy.

Cameron won't have the latitude to wait two years. International investors will want to see action on the deficit from day one.


Margaret Thatcher had to isolate or sack weak colleagues, says Oborne. He identifies the "pitifully weak" Andrew Lansley and "uninspiring" Theresa May as the ministers that David Cameron should move against.

Lesson4Expect to be hated is the fourth and final lesson that Peter Oborne draws from Margaret Thatcher's papers. She knew that she would be reviled for tough decisions and she was.  Is David Cameron prepared for the wave of hostility that will engulf him, should he do what is going to be necessary to reverse Brown's scorched earth legacy?

Is Cameron up to the task? Underlining the problem that Team Cameron still has with Paul Dacre, The Daily Mail doesn't even mention him in its leader, Where is the new Margaret Thatcher to rescue us?

The trouble for David Cameron is that he may need to be bolder than Margaret Thatcher. Not only is the economy comparably weak he is set to enter 10 Downing Street at a time when the media has never been more frenetic. He won't be given time or space to make mistakes. Tories will be a minority government in the Lords. British society is also much weaker and politicians have never been so distrusted. Brown leaves Britain in a terrible, terrible mess.

Let me offer a lesson five:

Lesson5 Actually it's not my lesson but Iain Duncan Smith's lesson. This is what he said earlier in the year:

"At the end of the Thatcher years Britain was transformed. Europe’s sickest economy had become its strongest. The recipe had been low taxes. Simple taxes. Effective regulation. Privatisation. Free trade. Reform of the trade union movement. Intolerance of inflation.

They were necessary things to have done and I don’t say that lightly. They saved Britain from terminal economic decline.

 But somehow they didn’t create a nation that was quite at ease with itself. Margaret Thatcher knew that herself and used her memoirs to regret that she hadn’t been able to initiate ‘Social Thatcherism’.

As we rebuild our economies from today’s tough times we are going to need simpler taxes and open markets but the lesson of the 1980s is that those things won’t be enough.

When the next period of conservative government ends I want the British people to remember us for other things too. For helping parents to stay together and to spend more time with their children. For a nation where every one has a second chance. For building schools that reinforce the values of the home. For respecting and nurturing the skill of craftsmen. For protecting woodland and other habitats of rich natural beauty. For helping a new generation to understand their country’s history.

That’s the conservatism that will help make my country strong and contented again."

Tim Montgomerie


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