Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have fought hard to be seen as the true heir to Margaret Thatcher in their battle to become the next UK prime minister.
The spectre of the Conservative party icon has loomed large over the contest, despite her having been ousted from power more than 30 years ago and her death in 2013.
Truss’ claim to Thatcher’s legacy rests on her commitment to massive tax cuts and attacks on the unions at a time of widespread industrial action.
Sunak says his belief in fiscal prudence and endorsement from Thatcher’s finance minister makes him a more faithful torchbearer for the woman who was prime minister from 1979 to 1990.
Thatcher’s legend was built on crushing the unions in order to implement her free market economic policies, winning the 1982 Falklands War against Argentina and three general election victories.
– Nostalgia –
Conservative party members ranked Thatcher as their second-most respected leader with 93 percent support, just behind Winston Churchill, according to a 2019 YouGov poll.
Around 56 percent of members called themselves “Thatcherite” — more than any other label.
For Tim Bale, a political scientist at Queen Mary University of London, the Tory party’s increasing anti-European stance reinforces the aura of the “Iron Lady” who stood up to Brussels and in 1979 demanded a rebate on British contributions.
“There’s a lot of nostalgia for the way that she changed the country. She ground down the trade unions. She cut taxes for the wealthy. She increased home ownership,” he told AFP.
“It’s inevitable in some ways that they look back on her as… the proprietress of a golden age.”
With both candidates struggling to outline a new vision in the vein of David Cameron’s modernisation project or Boris Johnson’s promise to deliver Brexit, Thatcher’s presence has filled the void.
John Curtice, a political scientist at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, also pointed out that the economic situation is “very similar to the one Thatcher was dealing with in 1979” — spiralling inflation and widespread strikes.
– Shapka and tank –
Truss, noted for her use of social media, has also been snapped in photographs strikingly similar to Thatcher’s most iconic images.
She posed in a shapka on a visit to Moscow, on the turret of a tank in Estonia, and sported a white blouse with a large bow, as worn by Thatcher, during one of the leadership debates.
But she said of the comparisons: “I haven’t invited them; the media constantly go on about it.
“Frankly, every woman in politics gets compared to Theresa May or Margaret Thatcher because there haven’t been as many women leaders as men leaders.”
In an effort to convince the grassroots members that he wasn’t on the party’s left, Sunak made a pilgrimage to Thatcher’s home town of Grantham in the east of England, at the end of July.
He also used the Daily Telegraph, the Conservatives’ daily newspaper of choice, to present himself as a “Thatcherite” who would implement a “radical set of Thatcherite reforms that will unleash growth”.
His allies, as well as former ministers of the late leader, have made numerous interventions to present his programme of reducing inflation before announcing tax cuts as being more faithful to Thatcher’s ideology.
Thatcher “said the things that may have been difficult to hear,” Sunak insisted on the BBC.
“And that’s the standard that I hold myself to, I don’t want to make promises that I can’t keep”.