Boris v Maggie
Just how similar are two of the most divisive Prime Ministers in recent history?
The Conservative Party has been in power in one way or another for a large majority of the last 40 years. Other than Tony Blair’s New Labour in the late 1990s and early 2000s, five Conservative Prime Ministers have resided in 10 Downing Street, each with their own unique approach to the job.
Arguably the most famous, or infamous, of these five was Margaret Thatcher who was PM for 11 years. Comparisons have often been attempted between Thatcher and the UK’s current Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but to what extent is this a valid assessment?
The matter was given coverage in last week’s Sunday People Newspaper, which ran with a headline of ‘The New Maggie’ along with a picture of Johnson merged with Thatcher. This was in relation to new lockdown measures being introduced to the North of England. The paper pointed out that it was Thatcher who cemented the North/South divide in the UK, and it was Johnson, with these harsher restrictions for the North, who is expanding it.
This first comparison has some weight behind it. Thatcher is despised in some northern towns and cities as the PM who ripped out the heart of working class communities. Throughout the 1980s, many heavy industry jobs were lost in the north, never to be replaced.
The modern day equivalent of this by Johnson’s government would be the new restrictions which will put a tighter grip on finances of those in the North. In areas already at a disadvantage with the impact of the virus, jobs will once again be put at risk with less support than earlier in the pandemic.
Furthermore, Johnson and Thatcher have both enjoyed huge landslide victories as Prime Minister. In 1983 Thatcher won a 144 seat majority which was the Conservatives biggest post war election victory, whilst Boris Johnson led the Party to an 80 seat majority in 2019. At both elections, the pair were helped by the social climate at the time and generally weak opposition leadership.
One way in which Johnson and Thatcher differ is through their approaches to the economy. From the beginning of Thatcher’s tenure in 1975 onwards, the Conservative attitude was one of right-wing economic strategy. This includes sanctifying the free market and various examples of justifying financial inequality. Yet under Johnson, this has shown signs of changing.
Certain principles of the economy shifted towards the left, with one suggested reason being that this was possible because the Conservatives took so many voters from Labour in last December’s election. Winning seats which were traditionally part of the ‘Red Wall’ gave Johnson the freedom to adopt a slightly more-on-the-left economic engagement. It was subtle, but the significant victory in 2019 sewed the seeds for a different approach.
The personality of the pair put them on either ends of the spectrum of what is expected of a Conservative Party leader. Thatcher was a stern character, arrogant, bordering on stubborn in all of her efforts from leading the nation in the Falklands War to defeating Arthur Scargill and the miners. This came across in her speeches, as does her defiance. It is this kind of steel which is sorely lacking in speeches and character of Boris Johnson, who often comes across a defeated man in need of the empty praise he was perhaps surrounded with as a youth. This has been laid out for all to see during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Both Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson will go down in history as devise Conservative Prime Ministers. They undoubtedly both have more of a presence than plenty of other leaders in the Party’s history, but ultimately one of their biggest similarities will be the handling of make or break situations during their time as Prime Minister.
If their respected premierships were summed up in the question of ‘sink or swim?’ then Thatcher would be paddling furiously staying afloat whilst a beleaguered Johnson sits at the bottom of the sea, clinging on to the ballast which is Brexit; something which he has thinly veiled as a personal victory on several occasions.