Why the UK Conservatives need another Thatcher

Why the UK Conservatives need another Thatcher

Why the UK Conservatives need another Thatcher
Prime Minister Theresa May is stepping down on June 7. (File/AFP))

The UK is facing its “worst peacetime crisis,” and the union is “more divided than at any time since the Civil War.” Such statements have been used to describe the current impasse the country finds itself in. With embattled Prime Minister Theresa May to step down next week, Conservative Party candidates are falling over themselves to try and get the top job. Following a spectacular drubbing during the European elections last week, with the ruling party coming a spectacular fifth, the Conservatives must choose a leader who will bridge divides and avoid a potentially fatal electoral defeat.

A staggering 38 British prime ministers have come from the Conservative Party or its Tory predecessor. The party of Wellington, Disraeli, Churchill and Thatcher is first and foremost a party of government. However, May last week made it four successive Conservative prime ministers who, in one way or another, had to resign because of Europe. Three years since the British people voted to leave the EU, the UK is torn between a government so weak that it has pursued a Brexit deal that would leave the country at the mercy of fate, a ruling party fraught with division, and an electorate so utterly fed up that they have begun to vote for outlying parties in protest. Last week’s European polls were won by the Brexit Party, established only months ago, as the Conservatives astonishingly trailed behind the Greens.

There is no doubt that May’s tenure has grossly divided the party. Her cataclysmic decision to prematurely hold a general election resulted in the Conservatives losing their majority. As her voice continued to crackle, her party did too. However, May cannot be held solely responsible for its state. Europe, as ever, has driven a wedge between those who wish to remain in the EU, those who wish to leave whatever the cost, and those who wish to leave with an agreement that protects British interests into the future. This entire episode has shown that what the Conservatives require is strong, almost radical, leadership – bold enough to set a course for the party and the wider country. What the party needs is Margaret Thatcher.

What the Conservatives require is strong, almost radical, leadership — bold enough to set a course for the party and the wider country

Zaid M. Belbagi

As a staggering 11 Conservative leadership candidates begin jostling for the top job, they would do well to remind themselves of the plucky grocer’s girl who stunned the party at 50-1 odds to unseat Edward Heath as leader in 1975. In the 1970s, Britain’s industrial decline was spectacularly mismanaged, with the government at the mercy of unions and social strife an all-too-common feature of daily life. The UK had seen sustained high inflation rates, which were above 20 percent at the time of the 1979 election, unemployment had risen and, over the winter of 1978-79, there was a series of strikes that became known as the “Winter of Discontent.” Petrol stations closed, ports were picketed, bodies were left unburied and waste uncollected. In the midst of this civil disturbance, Thatcher amazed her opponents by coming to power, as the Labour Party failed in its efforts to satisfy its working-class voter base.

Though not as drastic, Britain’s present situation is not dissimilar to that of the 1970s. The Brexit process has absorbed political will and effort, leaving little else for the other big challenges of the day. Not until a deal is agreed on Brexit will Parliament be able to wholeheartedly proceed to tackle other pressing challenges.

When Thatcher came to power, a “national consensus” had dominated British politics – tolerating or encouraging nationalization, strong trade unions, heavy regulation, high taxes, and a generous welfare state – since 1945. By boldly bringing this to an end, Thatcher steered the country on a new course, whilst also taking her party to three historic election wins. By making drastic changes to trade union laws (most notably the regulation that unions had to hold a ballot of their membership before calling strikes), walkouts had fallen to their lowest level for 30 years by the time of the 1983 general election, which the Conservatives won by a landslide.

The crop of candidates that have put themselves forward to replace May is by no means a list of the party’s most impressive and extraordinary. Hollowed out by the collapse of David Cameron and May’s governments, the party is a deeply tribal beast, with any future leader having to make any policy palatable to the different factions within the party.

It is clear from the recent European and local council elections that politics in the UK is changing. Where established parties previously had the advantage of existing infrastructure and recognition to change the outlook of elections, social media and technology has allowed newer, more nimble political movements to exploit popular dissatisfaction to devastating electoral effect.

Tory leadership hopeful and former foreign secretary Boris Johnson showed understanding of this, warning that the Tories would be “dismissed from the job of running the country” if they continued to fail in delivering on their promises. If, like the unions in the 1970s, Europe is to be the critical factor in uniting the country, the new Conservative leader must act swiftly on delivering Brexit or the party risks exiting mainstream politics altogether.

  • Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid
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