GAVIN ESLER: How Margaret Thatcher would have handled Brexit

PUBLISHED: 09:00 30 September 2018

Then opposition leader Margaret Thatcher lends her support to 'Keep Britain in Europe' campaigners in Parliament Square, London in June 1975, the day before voting in the United Kingdom EEC referendum. Picture: P. Floyd/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Then opposition leader Margaret Thatcher lends her support to 'Keep Britain in Europe' campaigners in Parliament Square, London in June 1975, the day before voting in the United Kingdom EEC referendum. Picture: P. Floyd/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

2016 Getty Images

As the Conservatives gather for their conference in Birmingham, their Brexit policy in crisis, they should consider what lessons can be learned from the former PM, says GAVIN ESLER.

What would Maggie do? Every Conservative leader, male or female, is always measured against the Margaret Thatcher standard, especially when dealing with Europe. So, with Theresa May botching the biggest thing Britain has done since the Second World War, it’s worth considering if there are any lessons from her predecessor to get us out of the self-inflicted Brexit mess, especially since the humiliation in Salzburg last week was utterly un-Thatcherlike.

May was blindsided by predictable EU reaction to her ill-thought-out Chequers proposals. She left Austria not waving but drowning. Weak at home, she is condemned to be impotent abroad. Prime minister May – who once claimed the “naughtiest” thing she ever did was to run through a wheat field – may go down in political history as attempting something much wilder than anything from Thatcher.

The Iron Lady only managed to neutralise the unions, emasculate the Labour Party, sell off council houses, privatise publicly-owned industries, fight a war in the South Atlantic, help destroy communism and win the Cold War. But not even Thatcher considered a course of action so bold it involves destroying Britain’s existing key foreign, economic, industrial and trade relationships plus our reputation for competence, while creating a run on the pound, falling house prices and a brain drain – and all by next March.

All that would be quite risky for a Churchill or a Thatcher, and the Wheat Field Sprinter is clearly out of her depth. Nevertheless, May relishes her reputation, as one colleague put it, of being a “bloody difficult woman”. Stubbornness in Thatcher was a virtue because, like or loathe her policies, she was extremely competent at getting things done. May’s stubbornness is more like that of the Captain of the Titanic refusing to recognise the iceberg until it sinks us all. And so with six months of Brexit bluster ahead, it’s worth considering why, by the standard of Thatcher in Europe, May is failing, and could change course.

Maggie Lesson #1, as a senior diplomat from the Thatcher period put it to me, is “always to be in the room”. Thatcher’s European summits were nicknamed ‘three-shirters’ – sweaty affairs, stretching out so long that fresh clothes were needed. Unlike May’s 10 minutes to make her case in Salzburg, Thatcher famously handbagged her 11 European counterparts late into the night, demanding a British rebate and other concessions. And they would listen. With May they look at their watches and think about dinner.

Maggie Lesson #2: Be prepared. Thatcher was often the best-prepared person in the room. She did not like surprises. Advisers tried to ensure she knew every argument her opponents would make before they spoke. Conservatives worked closely with European conservatives in a hugely influential group, the European People’s Party. To appease his party’s un-appeasable eurosceptics David Cameron very unwisely left the EPP. Ever since, Britain has been blindsided by the EU bureaucracy. Most notably, Britain had no real say when Jean-Claude Juncker became president of the European Commission, a terrible blunder Thatcher would not have tolerated.

Maggie Lesson #3: Britain put the best brains in Brussels. For years, Britain, in the cliché, punched above its weight, but a quarter century of unrelenting British negativity has devalued an EU posting in the minds of UK civil servants. For too long we have not been in the right networks or right rooms with the right people.

Maggie Lesson #4: Win the propaganda battle with charm and menace. Thatcher’s spokesman was the brilliantly caustic Yorkshireman Bernard Ingham. When Britain was outvoted in Europe by 11 to 1, Sir Bernard would quip that the 11 members were “clearly out of step” with reality. When there were setbacks, everyone knew Thatcher was battling for British jobs, money and business. If a Thatcher foreign secretary had commented, as Boris Johnson is said to have – “f**k business” – he would have been sacked before you could say ‘Iron Lady’. Thatcher was admired and feared. May is tolerated and pitied.

And Maggie Lesson #5: The old proverb, ‘hasten slowly’. Thatcher acted boldly only after the most careful, and cautious, preparation. Her privatisation programme was extremely slow. She defeated the miners’ union only after years of planning. She made the case for trade union reforms, changed laws, built up coal stocks and prepared the police.

May’s lessons are very different. She is hard working, no-nonsense, and dogged. Refreshingly, she finds some dark political skills beyond her – she cannot tell barefaced lies, which is why she always dodges the question about whether Britain will be better off out of the EU.

She is consistent – but foolishly so, and despite clear evidence. She has poor judgement and takes bad advice from unwise advisers. Even at the peak of her popularity as our new prime minister, May did the most un-Thatcherlike thing of all. She panicked. Twice.

In Panic One, she activated Article 50, setting a hard deadline for Brexit before truly considering what Brexit actually means. This would be like Thatcher fighting the miners by fixing a date without stockpiling coal. In Panic Two, May announced an unnecessary general election in 2017. She lost seats and credibility and now has no clear mandate on Brexit.

So what can she do? Well, she could reverse Panic One by withdrawing Article 50, pausing the Brexit process until she gets her act together – if that is still possible. She cannot reverse Panic Two, her loss of a clear mandate for Brexit, except by forcing another general election, in which she risks utter defeat. That leaves the pragmatic way out, a People’s Vote referendum.

For now, May’s stubbornness means that this common-sense idea has been rejected. But with the Brexit fiasco unfolding for another six months, perhaps she could at least learn from Thatcher’s own greatest mistake, the poll tax.

In 2016, Brexiteers assumed that because British people were often fed up with the EU, Brexit would be easy. In the 1980s, Thatcher made a similar miscalculation over the unpopular property tax known as the ‘rates’. She announced she was scrapping it – a very popular decision, until we heard how something worse would replace it: The hated poll tax. Like the Brexiteers, Thatcher, uncharacteristically, did not prepare for the poll tax, did not listen, and instead accepted the half-baked ideas of right-wing zealots. The result was a political crisis, a public revolt, and street riots, until Tory MPs ruthlessly got rid of Thatcher in order to save their own skins. The poll tax died. No one mourned.

And that’s the real lesson of Thatcher. A ‘bloody difficult’ politician who imposes an ill-conceived scheme to make us all poorer will self-destruct. May should instead admit honestly that she tried to deliver a ‘good Brexit’ but found that is simply impossible.

She should honourably pass responsibility back to the British people in a People’s Vote. May would then enter political history as someone who put honesty above pig-headed ideology. And if she wanted to do something much bolder than running through a wheat field, she could admit that after two years of studying the evidence, she herself would vote to Remain in the EU as the best option.

That would allow Britain’s next prime minister, whoever he or she might be, to get back in the room to remake the EU in Britain’s best interests.

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