When Margaret Thatcher began to change Britain in 1979, I found the
media had great difficulty in grasping the new politics she was
determined to practise. They operated on the assumption that sooner or
later she would turn like the rest of them had before her.
For two years I played ’spot the U-turn’ with the Lobby. And the penny
did not entirely drop when she resisted all efforts to take the brakes
off public spending and told her party conference: ’You turn if you want
to, the lady’s not for turning’.
This wave of nostalgia has been brought on by Baroness Thatcher’s recent
meeting with Prime Minister Tony Blair to discuss world affairs before
the summitry season. It is easy to dismiss the event as a PR stunt.
After seven years’ retirement, Lady Thatcher is no expert on the current
Mr Blair may also find some advantage in being seen to be consulting the
Great Handbagger before a European summit at which he intends to speak
softly while holding a big stick labelled ’the national interest’.
But this ignores her working experience of Europe’s leading men:
Chancellor Kohl, President Chirac and Euro-Commission president, Jacques
Santer whom she knew as Luxembourg’s Prime Minister. She also travels
incessantly to the United States, Japan, the Far East and Hong Kong
which we are about to hand over 15 years after she began negotiating the
On the other hand, Mr Blair did not need to invite her to No 10. He may
have next to no experience of foreign or European affairs whereas she
attended 32 consecutive European, 12 G7 and seven Commonwealth
But he could have chosen to consult someone more operationally up to
date - for example, his predecessor, John Major, or former Foreign
Secretaries Douglas Hurd or Malcolm Rifkind - and with a less didactic
approach to life. He also could have plumped for an adviser less
inclined to induce apoplexy in his Left.
All this suggests to me that the media should not repeat their Thatcher
mistake. Perhaps Mr Blair means what he says when he talks about a new,
more open politics. Maybe he really does mean to tap the nation’s mind
and experience, regardless of political conviction.
After all, he has not only professed his admiration for the Iron Lady
and modelled his appeal on hers; he has also appropriated whole chunks
of her policies. A chap who can do that to the Labour Party we knew and
loved - and get away with it - can probably do anything. Before we know
where we are, he might even outflank Tory Eurosceptics.
Mr Blair may not be just a pretty PR face after all. It’s going to be
fun finding out.