Tom Richmond: Lessons of Margaret Thatcher’s downfall are lost on Theresa May’s Brexit rebels as history threatens to repeat itself

Margaret Thatcher's downfall echoes the difficulties facing Theresa May.
Margaret Thatcher's downfall echoes the difficulties facing Theresa May.
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THE parallels between Margaret Thatcher’s final days in office – and Theresa May’s peril – are striking as Tory MPs again take leave of their senses.

Just as Conservatives struck in 1990 while Mrs Thatcher was in Paris at a Nato summit to celebrate the end of the Cold War, Mrs May was out of the country, visiting European capitals, when the vote into her leadership was triggered. Cunning? No. Cowardly? Yes.

Is Theresa May still heading for the political exit after her confidence vote?

Is Theresa May still heading for the political exit after her confidence vote?

The similarities do not end here. Once again, Europe is the defining issue. Then the uprising was triggered by Europhiles standing up to Mrs Thatcher’s growing Euroscepticism. Now, in a great irony, it is the reverse because Brexiteers mistrust Mrs May’s intentions.

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And there could – I fear – be another unfortunate comparison to be made between the only two women in history to lead this country. Mrs Thatcher was, in fact, the only candidate who secured the support of more than 200 MPs in the 1990 leadership ballots. This was still not good enough. After marching out of the British Embassy in Paris, and letting it be known that she would stay in the fight, she resigned tearfully 36 hours later.

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Europe ultimately brought down Margaret Thatcher - despite her victory in the Falklands war.

Europe ultimately brought down Margaret Thatcher - despite her victory in the Falklands war.

Even though Mrs May was technically the ‘winner’ last night by 200-117 votes, she was also the ‘loser’. More than one third of her MPs – many more than envisaged – voted against her and, like Mrs Thatcher before her, it is unclear if she will be able to survive such a loss of authority for much longer, even though another confidence vote cannot be called for 12 months. The danger is not over. Far from it.

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Yet there is also a key difference between these two plots. In 1990, Mrs Thatcher’s premiership was already beginning to come to an end after 11 years and John Major, Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd – the three men who contested the leadership – were all national statesmen. The Tories also had a thumping Commons majority.

Today Mrs May is overwhelmed by Brexit, the most complex diplomatic negotiation undertaken by any premier since the Second World War, while heading a minority government after Northern Ireland’s DUP welshed on the deal struck after last year’s election.

Yet, despite Mrs May bringing many of her problems on herself after a succession of deeply damaging U-turns and being unable to count upon her party, her potential replacements all have negative poll ratings because they have neither the stature, or statecraft, required to lead through troubled times.

As such, the very distraction of last night’s vote shows that many Tories have learned nothing since October 2002 when a little-known MP warned party conference delegates: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies, You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

That person was party chairman Theresa May. She was right then – and she was right on the steps of 10 Downing Street when she reminded the country that “the public’s priorities”, specifically the cost of living agenda, must also be “the Conservative Party’s priorities too”.

For, by prolonging its civil war over Europe, and the country’s future relationship with the EU, the Tories are signalling that they are a single-issue party – and no longer the natural party of government and business.

After all, it was David Cameron who had to promise a referendum on EU membership to appease hardline Eurosceptics who, frankly, will never be satisfied. The irony is that he thought the 2015 election would end in a hung parliament and that he would not have to deliver this commitment.

Having tried – and failed – to reframe Britain’s relationship with Europe, he quit when the electorate decided that an undefined Brexit would be preferable to remaining in the EU. Now, as Mrs May tries to finesse a Withdrawal Agreement to avoid the country crashing out of the EU on March 29 next year, a few dozen Tory rebels believe that they are best qualified to determine the nation’s future.

How selfish and self-indulgent can you get? Their behaviour meant that a planned Cabinet meeting had to be cancelled before Mrs May pulled out of a trip to Dublin to meet the Taoiseach to see if the impasse over the Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ could be broken.

And their arrogant short-sightedness doesn’t end here. Believe it or not, the identity of some of the 48 signatories was not known before last night’s secret ballot – and some of these individuals have the temerity to call themselves democrats.

All their antics serve to do – and, believe me, they won’t end after this vote – is undermine the Prime Minister, compromise the Government, betray Conservative values and anger voters who want Brexit reconciled so attention can return to key issues, like the future of social care and the funding of local services, marginalised by this febrile free-for-all.

And they will have learned nothing from Margaret Thatcher’s downfall, or the disintegration of the Major and Cameron governments, which were all effectively ended by the one issue that will not go away – Europe.

tom.richmond@jpimedia.co.uk