Liz Truss is no Margaret Thatcher

23 July 2022

9:00 AM

23 July 2022

9:00 AM

The late Senator Lloyd Bentsen was 26 years older than the young Senator Dan Quayle when in 1988 they crossed swords in a debate in Omaha, Nebraska. Their exchange became famous. Quayle had been comparing himself with the late John F. Kennedy. Old Bentsen hit back: ‘Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.’

As it happens, I’m 26 years older than Liz Truss. So it’s a temptation to which I yield to quote that exchange, now that Ms Truss, explicitly, both in her wardrobe and the photo opportunities she contrives, is inviting comparison with the late Baroness Thatcher.

I can’t quite mimic Bentsen’s claim. Only in the technical sense did I serve with the then Mrs Thatcher when she was prime minister, and I cannot boast a personal friendship. But I worked for her in her Commons office for two years when she was opposition leader and, immersed in that often frenetic place, you do become familiar with the stamp the boss places on her team, even lowly correspondence clerks like me.

So, Foreign Secretary, I knew Margaret Thatcher and I worked for Margaret Thatcher. And, Foreign Secretary, you’re no Margaret Thatcher.

Thatcher’s name is being bandied about during this Tory leadership contest. Would she or would she not have approved of the idea – central to the pitch of some of the candidates, including Ms Truss – that by cutting taxes we can spend our way out of looming recession and power towards economic growth? Rishi Sunak says Thatcher would not have approved. Truss thinks she would. I doubt it. Fresh in Thatcher’s memory would have been the former Tory chancellor Anthony Barber’s ‘dash for growth’, which ended in the inflationary ditch.

The idea of borrowing and spending your way out of a slump is not as mad as it sounds, but it can only work in certain, very restricted, circumstances. Like Mr Sunak, I doubt they pertain today but I’m not competent to advance a useful analysis.

No, the idea that interests me is bringing the ghost of the Blessed Margaret into the TV studios where the candidates have been crossing swords, and guessing what view she’d have taken of each, and the statements each has been making.

She would have been intrigued by Kemi Badenoch. Though from a much more racially prejudiced generation, in Mrs T I never detected the slightest trace of racism. She was impressed by anyone who had made something of themselves, as she herself had; and her ears would have pricked up on hearing Ms Badenoch’s degree had been in engineering rather than the arts, and she’d gone on to study law, as Margaret Roberts, who had studied chemistry, did. She’d have warmed to Badenoch’s small-state pitch, but warned her to stick to the general principle and be cautious about the specifics. Mrs T was very wary when it came to specifics. My instructions as her letter-writer were never to stray into anything that implied a commitment.

When it came to Badenoch’s fierce beliefs in individual liberty and freedom of expression, Mrs T would have loved the anti-wokery but – again – advised caution on the specifics of individual liberty. I recall drafting for her a preface to a Freedom Association magazine. She signed off my whole draft except the sentence: ‘The true test of freedom of expression is whether we’d extend it to those whose views we find offensive.’ This sentence was removed. Badenoch, though, is the candidate she’d have felt warmest towards – even patronised a bit – but her private counsel would have been that she was still a bit raw and inexperienced; though one to watch for the future.

Mrs T would have loved Penny Mordaunt’s derring-do and services background, and hated the smutty humour. I find myself incapable of even imagining her saying the word ‘cock’, except as meaning a rooster, while failing to note there was another usage. She’d have envied Ms Mordaunt’s ability to communicate naturally, but wanted to know more about what she’d ever actually done.

I’m not sure about Thatcher and Tom Tugendhat. She was suspicious of intellectuals unless, like Keith Joseph, Charles Moore, Alfred Sherman or Friedrich Hayek, they could clothe her own instincts in more learned language and argument than she could command. Were it not against the rules, Tugendhat would have done best to lose the specs and wear military uniform in her presence. She’d have liked that.

I’ve mentioned Truss already. Mrs T would have bridled at any suggestion there could ever be another Maggie (‘I’ll be the judge of that’ would be her response) and thought the tax-cutting stuff ideologically suspect. I fear this aspirant for No. 10 might have been waved rather dismissively away. You may be surprised to hear the pussy-bow would not have earned Mrs T’s approval. These bows became a signature dress for her, but she was never quite sure if they were over the top. I remember overhearing her reaction to a newspaper photograph of herself in one of these extravagances. ‘Oh dear,’ she said ruefully. ‘The bow. The bow.’

As Rishi Sunak would be my choice for Tory leader, you may expect me to say that Mrs T would have opted enthusiastically for this former chancellor. But I somehow doubt it. I think she’d have concluded that he was the best of a thin field, but I suspect something about Sunak’s smoothness, his image-making (she never realised she herself was constructing a persona) and his somewhat technocratic command might have irked her. Tables and accountancy language, and feeding stuff into Treasury models and seeing what came out the other end, would have left something missing, she’d have thought. Where was the fire? Where was the philosophical certainty? Where was the passion?

So she would have greeted his remark during Sunday’s debate – ‘If we’re not for sound money, what is the point of the Conservative party?’ – with a cheer. ‘That’s more like it! More of that, Mr Sunak – much more.’

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