Bernard Ingham: Has PM May come to bury Margaret Thatcher or to praise her?

Theresa May - but will she govern like Margaret Thatcher?
Theresa May - but will she govern like Margaret Thatcher?
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SEVEN words – “There is no such thing as society” – still haunt me 30 years on. The Left, and archbishops, still cite them as evidence of Margaret Thatcher’s “uncaring” nature. Bunkum.

When read in context, or heard in person, it is an unexceptional idea that individuals should take responsibility for their lives and not just fall back on the state.

David Cameron put it more positively: “There is such a thing as society; it’s not just the same thing as the state.”

I mention all this because it is being argued that Theresa May has killed Thatcherism stone dead in search of Labour votes. Yet May has said: “Nobody, no individual tycoon and no single business, however rich, has succeeded on their own.” In that way she has reinforced Thatcher’s message of our inter-dependence, albeit in an economic rather than social context.

We shall have to dig deeper for any evidence that Theresa May has a new brand of politics that spells the end of Thatcher’s influence over Tory policy.

Operationally, she is certainly a better butcher than Thatcher, who hated sacking people, even if at the end the Commons was unhelpfully littered with people who had served as Ministers.

She seems to have Thatcher’s steely resolve, a businesslike approach to the conduct of affairs and a determination to be the custodian of the Government’s thrust, pace and direction.

She is also apparently as distant from the media as Thatcher would have been without my forcing the issue. But it is to her immense credit that we have a PM no longer dancing to the tune of television or the media’s addiction to the soundbite after 20 years of governmental media obsession.

Philosophically, evidence that she is striking out in a new direction is harder to come by, notwithstanding her interventionist remarks about making Britain work for everyone and not just the privileged, first on taking office and then at the Tory Party conference.

The one exception is her idea of putting workers on company boards instead of encouraging them to become shareholders. But this comes after 30 years’ abuse of power by company bosses and City slickers.

It would be a big mistake if boards were to get only puppets dancing to Len McCluskey’s tune. Restricting eligibility for board service to worker shareholders would not necessarily achieve positive worker directors. And how are worker directors to be chosen?

After three months, we know very little precisely how May is to build a better Britain with the people having more control over their lives. This is entirely in keeping with her evident refusal to be rushed. All in due time.

Except that with Brexit absorbing a huge amount of Government attention, she does not have much time before the 2020 general election to show that her “strong, new, positive Britain” is on the way.

In short, we have only impressions and rhetoric to go on.

We know next to nothing about her international outlook except that Brexit really does mean Britain leaving the EU and recovering control of our borders; that we shall retain the nuclear deterrent in a dangerous world; and that we want to trade with all and sundry without breaking international sanctions.

I suspect she already has the measure of Vladimir Putin as a brutal, frustrated Russian nationalist who wants to take over the world.

How she will get on with Hillary Clinton, God willing, remains to be seen. Suffice it to say my only pleasure if Donald Trump won the US presidency would be to be a fly on the wall at May’s first meeting with him – always assuming the wallpaper did not catch fire.

It follows that her approaches 
to Syria, IS and wider terrorism and the refugee crisis (apart from restricting entry to Britain) are very much in the making.

As for Britain’s finances with a £70bn budget deficit and an awful trade gap, we await Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement next month. I fear he will go soft, which would be a most un-Thatcherite thing to do.

The problems confronting Mrs May are legion, starting with her stupidly fractious backbenchers. But even Leftie academics will have to rate her highly as a PM if she emerges as a credible, principled and reasonably successful leader in spite of having neither a commanding majority in the House nor the semblance of an Opposition.

So far, so good. But there isn’t much to go on yet about a break with the Thatcher way of governance.