Bernard Ingham: Cameron has chance to succeed against all odds

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NOW here’s a conundrum for the politically-minded this Christmas: will 2011 come to be seen as significant for Conservative fortunes as 1981?

Put another way, has it made David Cameron’s reputation as 1981 certainly forged Margaret Thatcher’s in the fire of political adversity?

There are remarkable similarities between the two years. An economy in trouble, unemployment soaring, plenty of critics saying the Government had got its economic management all wrong, a Civil Service strike and riots.

Indeed, it was so bad in No 10 in 1981 that I wrote in my book Kill the Messenger: “I hope never to go through its like again. If I could survive that, I could survive anything.”

I don’t imagine Cameron thinks the past year has been a cake-walk, either, with Libya and the Arab Spring piled on Afghanistan and the eurozone. But I suspect he would concede he has had it easy compared with Thatcher.

She also had to cope with IRA hunger strikes and bombs, several pay strikes plus an uncharacteristic retreat in a run-in with the National Union of Mineworkers over pit closures, condemnation of her policies by 364 economists and a couple of Cabinet reshuffles to rid herself of the Wets.

But the main reason I found 1981 so traumatic was “dissent by leaks” from within the Cabinet against Thatcher’s economic policies. She records in her book The Downing Street Years that long before 1981 dawned I had told her “it was proving quite impossible to convey a sense of unity and purpose in this climate”.

In short, don’t expect me to make a silk purse out of a shambles.

Just how shambolic it was we discovered in August 1981. It then became clear that Francis Pym and Peter Thorneycroft, chairman of the Tory Party, who were supposed to be bringing Government and party together to achieve a coherent message, were, as she records, actually using this arrangement to undermine the economic strategy.

And who was advising Pym as the Minister responsible for presentation of Government policy? Why, your’s truly. Ye Gods, what a mess!

But at least Thatcher had room for manoeuvre. She could sack the wets, as she did. First, Norman St John Stevas and then, in one fell swoop Sir Ian Gilmour, Mark Carlisle and Lord Soames, with Jim Prior exiled to the equivalent of the Ulan Bator power station in Northern Ireland. She said she got the distinct impression from Soames that he was being dismissed by his housemaid.

Cameron has not been made to feel like a mere valet because he is stuck with his Liberal Democrat partners for the duration of this Parliament, however much the likes of Nick Clegg, Vincent Cable and Chris Huhne huff and puff. Their saving grace is that they – and Kenneth Clarke – display their independent spirits openly rather than by anonymous leak as in 1981.

But the effect is broadly the same. Government these days is still not a pretty sight. My message to Cameron would be the same as delivered to Thatcher 30 years ago.

Yet she survived to change the nature of Britain and raise its standing in the world.

Will Cameron also emerge to achieve success against the odds – the economic and moral revival of the nation with entirely beneficial international consequences?

Well, like Thatcher, he is ending the year politically stronger than he entered it, though his position was never as precarious as Thatcher’s.

This strengthening arises from a combination of two things – a reasonable constancy over tackling debt and his refusal to go along with a Euro-settlement without adequate protection for Britain’s interests.

The latter came as a surprise since he had scarcely honed his Eurosceptic credentials during the year, saddled as he is with the Europhile Liberal Democrats. He has given us the hint of steel that so many have been looking for.

He has shown he does not fear to be alone, at least in international circles. Standing up to Europe has, of course, been popular at home.

One of the greatest qualities in any leader is resolution in the face of unpopularity.

Any politician who does not aspire to be loved will, with a bit of luck and good management, end up being respected.

Mrs Thatcher never aspired to be loved. Could it be that before Brussels we were misreading Cameron?

He now has everything to play for thanks to his determination in 2011. Just like Thatcher in 1981, he does not have much to trouble him in the official Opposition.

Thirty years on, history has a chance of repeating itself. Merry Christmas.