The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Boris Johnson idolized Churchill. U.K.’s next leader may look to Thatcher.

Former U.K. chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss take part in a televised debate in Stoke-on-Trent, England, on July 25. (Jacob King/AFP/Getty Images)

LONDON — The ghost of Margaret Thatcher haunts the race to lead Britain, as the two contenders vie to convince Conservative voters that they have the grit, the integrity of the Iron Lady, to save the country from inflation, recession and the left, and to stand up to a warmongering Russia.

It is no accident that Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and former chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak are casting about for inspiration in the more distant past.

Nobody is comparing themselves these days to outgoing Boris Johnson, who is leaving in slow-motion disgrace, after his own lawmakers concluded he was unfit for the office.

Both Truss and Sunak serve or served in Johnson’s government as top ministers, though both say that Britain now needs bold ideas, “radical reform” and a new direction.

Whom to blame? The Conservative Party has been in power for the past 12 years.

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Whereas Johnson aspired to be like Winston Churchill — even writing a book about him, to mediocre reviews — the duo competing to succeed him seem to want to revive the Thatcher era, when her belief in free markets and a small state transformed postwar Britain.

It may or may not matter if today’s Conservative voters really remember the Thatcher years accurately — the sky-high taxes, even after cuts; the soaring interest rates; the brutal recession; the spiking unemployment; the strikes, the union-busting.

Like Ronald Reagan for Republicans in the United States, for British Conservatives, Thatcher is an icon, her failures erased over time, her successes manifold in memory.

It is key that this is not a general election, but a selection by the roughly 200,000 dues-paying members of the Conservative Party, who skew older, Whiter and wealthier than the country as a whole.

Ben Harris-Quinney, director of Conservative Grassroots, a network of party members, said that “whoever is perceived to be more conservative or right-wing will likely win. And invoking Margaret Thatcher is one way to do that.”

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Voters might forget that it took Thatcher two terms — from 1979 to 1990 — to get Britain where she wanted it to go. And then her party turned on her, as they did with Johnson, who is now serving as a kind of summertime caretaker at 10 Downing Street until Truss or Sunak is named his successor in early September.

In his bid, Sunak has been the most emphatic to claim the mantle of iron.

“I will be the heir to Margaret Thatcher,” ready to usher in a “radical set of reforms” to unleash growth, he pledged in the Daily Telegraph newspaper.

“My values are Thatcherite,” Sunak vowed. “I believe in hard work, family and integrity. I am a Thatcherite, I am running as a Thatcherite and I will govern as a Thatcherite.”

In case folks didn’t get that memo, Sunak chose the town of Grantham to deliver a speech last week to the party faithful. Grantham was where Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter, grew up.

Backers of Truss say Rishi is no Maggie. They argue it is Truss who has the brass to fight inflation (now topping 9 percent here) with billions in tax cuts (and more borrowing).

Sunak opposes tax cuts — at least until inflation is under control.

John Redwood, a former policy adviser to Thatcher who now supports Truss, tweeted, “A visit to Grantham will not make Rishi Sunak a Thatcherite.”

Redwood added: “Conservative members will not be conned. They liked Margaret’s big tax cuts, wider ownership, pro business and growth. Liz will offer modern versions of policies that work.”

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Bill Cash, a Conservative lawmaker who is backing Truss, said she is a true representative “of the Thatcher inspiration in action today.”

Cash added that on Ukraine and Russia, Truss “has demonstrated decisive and courageous action, leading from the front, just as Thatcher did on the Atlantic alliance, and with the same kind of Falklands spirit.”

Thatcher sent the army, navy and air force into action against Argentina in 1982 to take back the Falklands, a British dependent territory in the South Atlantic.

When Truss showed up at a televised leadership debate this month wearing a black jacket and white pussy-bow blouse that looked uncannily like Thatcher’s outfit during a 1979 election broadcast, social media brimmed with side-by-side images.

Truss herself has downplayed the comparisons — and suggested there is a whiff of sexism in such remarks. “It is quite frustrating that female politicians always get compared to Margaret Thatcher,” she told GB News.

Asked by the BBC about modeling herself on Thatcher, Truss responded, “I am my own person.”

When Truss was a child living in Scotland, she attended protests with her left-wing parents, chanting, “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, oot, oot, oot” — out, out, out.

Though Thatcher was finally out by the time Truss came to embrace Conservatism, she now — like all Conservatives in good standing — proclaims herself a “great admirer of Mrs. Thatcher.”

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Truss has particularly praised Thatcher’s willingness to “challenge the groupthink” on the economy.

“There were 364 economists that objected to Mrs. Thatcher’s plan, and what we are doing at the moment, the economic policy at the moment is not delivering the economic growth we need,” she told the Mail on Sunday, suggesting she was the bold one.

Asked Monday in their first head-to-head debate what advice she would give her opponent, Truss said: “The thing I think you should work on is taking more risks and being bolder.”

Truss says that as leader she would slash $36 billion in taxes, to be paid for through borrowing.

Sunak has criticized her for promoting “the fantasy economics of unfunded promises.” He says it would be “immoral” to cut taxes now, when the treasury should be paying down the huge pandemic debt, which will burden future generations.

John Campbell, a Thatcher biographer, said that it wasn’t surprising that both candidates are “trying to appeal to the Thatcher legacy” as the Conservative Party looks to her as “a great, successful leader of the last generation, not only in what she did for the country, arguably, but also successful electorally. She was a huge personality who dominated and changed the landscape of politics for a generation or more.”

He said that in terms of policy, Sunak had a better claim than Truss did on being a Thatcherite.

“Thatcher was a great believer in balancing the books and sound money,” Campbell said. “While she is remembered for her tax cuts, that didn’t come in straight away. She got the economy straight first; there was the famous 1981 budget that raised taxes. After she got the economy straight, only towards the end of the best part of 10 years did her chancellor start cutting taxes.”

Some former Thatcher ministers have said they wouldn’t support Truss’s tax plans as a way to curb inflation — indeed, that seems to be the opinion of many economists. Though Truss has noted that libertarian economist Patrick Minford, who once advised Thatcher, is in her corner.

David Young, a Cabinet minister under Thatcher, wrote in the Telegraph that both candidates can lay some claim to be the rightful heir: “Rishi, a highly successful entrepreneur, espouses the orthodox side of Margaret but many would suggest that the Treasury has not served the nation well over the last decade. Liz offers the entrepreneurial vision, suggesting unorthodox solutions that may well be the answer.”

Harris-Quinney, of the grass-roots network, credited Truss with being “more able to capture that tone” associated with Thatcher. “That may well take her through the leadership race to position of prime minister,” he said.

But he added that candidates invite “the problem of falling short of expectations, if you set the bar at Margaret Thatcher.”

He said he had “a deep mistrust of anyone who tries to dub themselves as the next so-and-so. Boris tried to do that with Winston Churchill. The fact is, there will never be another Margaret Thatcher, another Winston Churchill.”

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