Candidates for UK Prime Minister Emulate Another: Margaret Thatcher

LONDON — When Rishi Sunak kicked off his campaign for leader of Britain’s Conservative Party and prime minister on Saturday, his choice of venue — a tire shop in the market town of Grantham — felt almost inevitable. Grantham is the birthplace of Margaret Thatcher, an icon of the right who looms large in every Conservative leader contest, but never more so than in these economically straitened times.

Mr. Sunak and his opponent, Liz Truss, are both competing to wrap themselves in the mantle of Thatcher, who was prime minister from 1979 to 1990. Each is casting themselves as the true heir to her free-market, low-tax, deregulatory revolution at home, and her robust defense of Western democracy abroad.

“We must be radical,” declared Mr. Sunak, who, like Ms. Truss, served in the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and is responsible for some of the economic policies he now proposes to sweep away. The agenda Mr. Sunak is championing, he told the party faithful, was “common-sense Thatcherism.”

But experts on Thatcher say the candidates are cherry-picking the legacy of the woman known as the “Iron Lady,” emphasizing the crowd-pleasing elements while glossing over the less appetizing ones, like some tax increases in 1981, during the depths of a recession, at a time when she was determined to curb runaway inflation.

“When Rishi and Truss invoke Thatcher, they’re both saying something true, but neither is saying the whole truth,” said Charles Moore, a former editor of The Daily Telegraph who wrote a three-volume biography of Thatcher. “Truss is right in saying she believed in tax cuts and less regulation,” he said, “but when Rishi says she cared about fiscal responsibility, that is also true.”

While both candidates are promising to cut taxes, Mr. Sunak, a former chancellor of the Exchequer, says it can only happen once inflation is tamed. He accuses Ms. Truss, who has said little about fiscal consequences, of telling “fairy tales.” His approach echoes Thatcher’s belief in balancing the books and her dislike of borrowing, which she viewed as a burden on future generations.

Yet neither candidate seems to have the stomach to run the full Thatcher playbook. Like them, she made her bid for Downing Street in an era of soaring inflation and labor unrest, though with much higher tax rates. Her economic shock therapy — which included a hefty increase in the sales tax — tempered inflation, but at the cost of a deep recession and mass unemployment.

It is much simpler to channel Thatcher, as Ms. Truss does, in a stylistic way. As foreign secretary, Ms. Truss appears to have modeled her appearances on the international stage closely on the Iron Lady, copying famous images, including one of Thatcher at the turret of a tank in West Germany. She has even taken to wearing a silk pussy-bow blouse, a familiar feature of the Thatcher wardrobe.

Even if that has provoked snickers in London’s political classes, some analysts said they did not blame Ms. Truss. Her target audience is the roughly 160,000 members of the Conservative Party who will choose the next leader. For these voters, many of whom are older and quite right-wing, Thatcher remains a revered figure, second only to Winston Churchill in the pantheon of Tory grandees. Some liken her status to the canonization of Ronald Reagan among rank-and-file Republicans in the United States.

“It is an enormous legacy,” said Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at Kent University. “It is difficult to overestimate the impact that Margaret Thatcher still has on the Conservative grass roots.”

Mr. Moore said that because Ms. Truss is a woman, the comparison to Thatcher was inevitable and that she might as well use it to her advantage. But he questioned whether she was going too far, risking self-parody.

“Putting on Thatcher’s clothes is a dangerous thing because often they don’t fit,” he said. “Truss is, not yet at least, a great figure.”

In evoking Thatcher on the global stage, Ms. Truss’s message appears to be that only she can stand up to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia the way her hero faced down the Soviets. Ms. Truss once floated the idea of arming Taiwan; she and Mr. Sunak have traded claims this week about who would be tougher on China.

The sparring continued during a televised debate on BBC Monday evening. An aggressive Mr. Sunak accused Ms. Truss of proposing a “short-term sugar rush of unfunded tax cuts,” while Ms. Truss said Mr. Sunak’s tax increases would stifle Britain’s growth prospects. “There is a genuine disagreement here,” she said.

However heated, the debate did not produce any major surprises, which is probably to Ms. Truss’ benefit since she is leading comfortably in recent polls of party members, and Mr. Sunak, analysts say, needs to shake up the race.

Ms. Truss has rejected suggestions that she is channeling Thatcher. She pointed out that she had charted her own path to the top of British politics, though there are parallels: Both women were brought up in middle-class families and attended Oxford University. But Mrs. Thatcher was president of the university’s conservative association, while Ms. Truss was a Liberal Democrat.

“It is quite frustrating that female politicians always get compared to Margaret Thatcher, whereas male politicians don’t get compared to Ted Heath,” Ms. Truss said in a recent interview with the television network GB News, referring to another Tory prime minister. (She pointedly did not mention Churchill.)

It is on economic policy where Ms. Truss and Thatcher most clearly diverge. Ms. Truss’s call for immediate tax cuts has been questioned by Norman Lamont, who was chief secretary to the Treasury under Thatcher. He noted that, despite some headline-grabbing cuts in income tax rates, between 1979 and 1981, in net terms, Mrs. Thatcher raised taxes more than she lowered them.

Mr. Sunak has a different problem: The current inflationary spiral is at least partly the legacy of his stewardship of the economy, with its massive state spending to cushion people from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Ms. Truss’s defenders paint him as the architect of an economic malaise.

“A visit to Grantham will not make Rishi Sunak a Thatcherite,” wrote John Redwood, a right-wing Conservative lawmaker who once headed Thatcher’s policy unit in Downing Street, on Twitter. “In the seven years I have known him he has never once asked me anything about Margaret Thatcher or her economic policies despite knowing I was her economic and policy adviser in the middle period.”

That did not stop Mr. Sunak from citing Thatcher in his speech, or his wife, Akshata Murty, from taking a selfie in front of a statue of her in Grantham. Despite their very different ethnic backgrounds — Mr. Sunak’s parents are Indians who immigrated to Britain from East Africa — there are also parallels: Mr. Sunak’s mother owned a pharmacy; Thatcher’s father a grocery shop.

The bigger question, perhaps, is whether it makes electoral sense for the Conservatives to keep nurturing the Thatcher cult.

While her up-by-your-bootstraps message appealed to some working-class voters, Thatcher, who died in 2013, never won over the country’s industrial north, where her shock therapy and battles with the miners’ unions left an enduring bitter taste. Mr. Johnson managed to convert some of these voters in 2019, and the party will need to hold on to them to fend off the Labour Party in the next general election.

When Mr. Johnson campaigned in these hollowed-out industrial areas, he rarely invoked Thatcher — and for good reason. “Even today, Margaret Thatcher is still seen as being incredibly toxic,” Professor Goodwin said.

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