Wanting to be Margaret

David Runciman has a lovely essay in the current issue of The London Review of Books.

Most British prime ministers since Margaret Thatcher, he observes, have wanted to be Thatcher in one way or another.

This pattern is now repeating itself among the farcically long list of would-be contenders for the Tory leadership. They all, in their different ways, want to be another Thatcher. And they are all desperate to demonstrate that they won’t be another May. How to make that case? By frantically channelling their inner iron lady. ‘Dominic is the male Thatcher,’ Raab’s supporters will tell anyone who’ll listen. ‘Like Thatcher, he is “unyielding”,’ one former cabinet minister said. What this seems to mean is that he will keep hammering away until he gets his way. Raab puts it like this: ‘I would use every lever of the executive to make sure we could execute government policy.’ He is hardly alone in this kind of talk. As his rivals lay out their various Brexit plans, one thing they have in common is the promise to supply the sense of purpose that has been missing until now. Whether it’s outright no deal, managed no deal, renegotiation, revival of the existing deal or even a second referendum, they will avoid the fate that befell May by being more resolute than she was. They won’t let the Europeans or the civil service or the judges or the Speaker or the parliamentary opposition or the chatterati knock them off course. They are not for turning.

There is, however, one problem with this.

It is hard to imagine any politician being more resolute than May. Remember, she thought she was Thatcher too. She went at it with an iron determination not to be deflected from her course. And look where that got her. What are the levers they can pull which she couldn’t? Parliament has shown that it does not take kindly to being bullied on the question of Brexit, and the Speaker is barely on speaking terms with the executive. Talk of proroguing Parliament to force through a no deal Brexit before 31 October is surely for the birds. Ignoring the views of the judges is not a way to avoid being troubled by them; it’s what gets you into trouble with them. The Irish government is not going to budge any more than the Brexit negotiators in Brussels are. In any case, Westminster’s authority barely extends to the devolved parts of the UK these days, let alone any further afield. Trying to browbeat the civil service doesn’t make sense unless the goal is to get nothing done at all. There is no magic switch that can be flicked to make the Irish border question go away; whatever fantasies of a technological solution have been entertained, it remains beyond the present government’s grasp. Raab can huff and puff all he likes. Being a successful prime minister is not just a question of willpower. Getting the job done depends on bringing people along with you. And people are not levers you can pull.

Great piece. Worth reading in full.