More than two decades after she left office, Margaret Thatcher’s death this month provided a reminder of the difficulties she continues to create for those who succeeded her as leader of Britain’s Conservative Party.
Prime Minister David Cameron is finding that his newest rank-and-file lawmakers, inspired by policies Thatcher pursued in the 1980s, are defying him as they bid to stop him yielding too much to his Liberal Democrat coalition partners. Cameron, the fifth Tory leader since 1990, based his appeal to voters before the 2010 election on a softening of the confrontational politics the Tories had developed.
Nearly half of the Tories now in Parliament won their seats for the first time in 2010. The memory of her arguing in their teenage years for deregulation, lower taxes and against European integration led them into politics. Her record of three election wins contrasts with Cameron’s failure to win a parliamentary majority in 2010, forcing him into coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and encourages them to defy him on issues such as the European Union.
“Thatcher is by far the most electorally successful person they’ve had in living memory,” Byron Criddle, co-author of The Almanac of British Politics, said in an interview. “The 2010 intake is more Thatcherite and more rebellious than their predecessors.”
In the two largest rebellions by Conservatives in the House of Commons against his government, a majority of those defying him have come from the newest lawmakers. According to Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at Nottingham University who specializes in parliamentary revolts, almost all of the 2010 intake who have yet to be promoted by Cameron to be ministers or aides have voted against the government at some stage.
It’s an unprecedented situation, because new members of Parliament have historically been reluctant to defy their party, Cowley says. Brooks Newmark, who until September was a government whip, responsible for Tory party discipline, found that with the 2010 new arrivals, things were different.
“They’re all children of Thatcher and are a distinct and different group from the rest of the party,” Newmark, a lawmaker since 2005, said in an interview. “There’s an instinctive loyalty not just to her but to her instincts and beliefs. A lot of them have no difficulty disagreeing with the leadership, which hasn’t happened in the past. Unlike previous intakes, who seemed to be very grateful for the leadership getting them in, they didn’t feel that.”
Nadhim Zahawi, 45, was one of the 2010 cohort who helped organize a revolt that defeated government plans to introduce elections to the upper House of Lords. A Kurd, his family fled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq shortly before Thatcher came to power in 1979.
“One of the biggest things she did, which reflects in the 2010 intake, was open the doors of the Conservative Party to people of varied backgrounds,” Zahawi said in an interview. “The generation that’s come in in 2010 grew up with Thatcher as leader of the party. A lot of them owe their seats to her opening up the party. When I saw that a grocer’s daughter can become leader of the Conservative Party, a family like mine, settling in their new home, felt that if we work hard, we could achieve something.”
This wasn’t the only way in which she inspired him. An older generation of Tories, including Cameron, were working in politics in 1992, when, two years after being deposed as leader, she encouraged Tories to vote against her successor as Tory prime minister, John Major, over the creation of the EU in its current form. The rebels came close to bringing down his government.
“She was right,” said Zahawi. “Sometimes when you see the dangers and the consequences of what can happen because of a mistake the government is making, you’ve got to stand up and be counted.”
This kind of view is reinforced by the manner in which Tory candidates get selected to fight for parliamentary seats, according to Criddle. “You can’t get selected unless you’re pretty sensitive about Thatcherite issues,” he said. “There are a lot of middle-aged, euro-skeptic, mildly racist people in local Conservative associations.”
Adding to Cameron’s difficulties is that his own wealthy background and education at a leading private school, Eton, contrast sharply both with Thatcher’s and with that of many of his new lawmakers.
“Although Thatcher ended up sounding like a duchess, she was socially mobile,” said Criddle. “There are a lot of similar people who came into Parliament in 2010.”
Another lawmaker elected for the first time in 2010 was Robert Buckland. The 44-year-old joined the party in 1985. At the time he was a teenager in South Wales, where miners were on strike. He said Thatcher’s death was an opportunity for the party to unify.
“It reminded Conservatives that we are a family of people with different strands, but we’ve got far more in common with each other than anyone else outside our party,” he said. “As individual Conservatives, we should look within ourselves to make sure we have the grit and the purpose and the clarity of what we want to achieve.”
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