I knew the Iron Lady – Starmer is no Thatcher

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

In our sister paper on Sunday, Sir Keir Starmer wrote, “Margaret Thatcher sought to drag Britain out of its stupor by setting loose our natural entrepreneurism”.

The praise was hardly effusive, but it has provoked angry reactions from the Labour Left, as was intended. I do not think the Left should be too alarmed, however. It is highly doubtful whether Sir Keir – by experience and ideology a government lawyer – would recognise natural entrepreneurism if it walked up to him in the street and shook him warmly by the hand.

The context of his remark is purely political and its character is Blairite not Thatcherite. As he elucidated in a BBC interview, Sir Keir wants to distinguish among post-war leaders between “those that had a plan ... and those who drifted”.

There is a sort of cross-party apostolic succession here which passes over Harold Wilson and Ted Heath and goes from Clement Attlee to Mrs Thatcher to Tony Blair. “They succeeded,” Sir Keir is saying, “so shall I.”

In speaking thus, Sir Keir is repudiating, without directly saying so, the long line of Labour leaders who either underrated Mrs Thatcher or hated her so much that they could never learn from her political success. These ranged from Jim Callaghan on the party’s Right, through the moderate John Smith to Ed Miliband, to Michael Foot and finally to the far shores of Leftist Utopia inhabited by Jeremy Corbyn. The list even includes Gordon Brown, who was always uneasy with the Blair/Mandelson attitude to Mrs Thatcher, though he did invite her to tea at No 10 when he was prime minister.

The only Labour leader who really studied her was Tony Blair, assisted by Peter Mandelson. As Sir Tony explained to me for my Thatcher biography, “By the time I became leader [1994], I was ready to say that if we’d been in government we should have been doing some of what she was doing … Her finest achievements had been as a moderniser against old-fashioned collectivism.” This included her insistence that “trade unions should operate within a legal framework”. He wanted to make Labour’s acceptance of this “explicit”.

Blair did not like Mrs Thatcher’s social policies or share her devotion to the nation state, which he regarded as “nostalgic”, but he wanted to channel her decisiveness, energy and toughness. The idea was to steal the strong bits of Thatcher and then “triangulate” to another part of the political playing field. Peter Mandelson calls this “the politics of ‘and’, rather than the politics of ‘or’ ”.

It scoops up lots of people, including some Thatcherites fed up with the present Conservative Government, so its electoral attractions are obvious, though voters tend to see through such tricks over time.

But time is now short, so I expect this semi-fiction will not be rumbled by voters until after polling day.

Urgency in Ukraine

Charity workers tell me there is consternation at Ukraine’s western borders. New Ukrainian border rules applying to all humanitarian cargo state that those delivering vehicles for repurposing as field ambulances etc must declare which military unit they will be sent to.

The new rules came into force on Friday. Few could operate them. The system kept crashing. The queues are days long. The temperatures are minus 10-15C. Mission Ukraine, one of the organisations involved, tells me that, with Christmas approaching, it cannot send out new volunteers if they do not know when they can return.

Patrick McIntyre, a volunteer for Cars4Ukraine who was at the border last Friday, says he has six vehicles in Britain ready to leave, but now won’t bring them: “I’ll just get stuck.”

Everything is made worse by the Polish hauliers’ strike there, a quite separate dispute.

In the confusion, there have even been official objections to the importation of right-hand drive vehicles (RHDs) – almost all of which come from Britain and Ireland – even though, under martial law, RHD importations are explicitly permitted. In the past, the vehicles could be registered with a Ukrainian charity and let through. Now they must be registered with a military unit, and Ukrainian military rules declare RHDs incompatible with army requirements (though in practice they are extensively used in this war). I am told that over 70 per cent of military commanders are currently refusing RHD vehicles.

The two laws have not been reconciled.

The purpose of the new rules is sensible: to unify the register of the Ukrainian charities involved; but they remove from the importing organisations their previous discretion to import the vehicles and then judge which military units need them most. There is a fear that, without this discretion, some vehicles will be corruptly co-opted for personal use.

The people who work so hard to get vehicles to Ukraine are very upset: the British are, I’m told, by far the biggest foreign contributor. RHDs also help Ukraine because they are significantly cheaper than continental 4 x 4s. Mr McIntyre reckons that 70 per cent of the vehicles helping at the front line are British, with possibly more than 30,000 in Ukraine. If the current mess persists, that supply will soon dry up. The consequent suffering of the wounded would be grave.

The full facts of this story are not yet clear, but there is real urgency. No one doubts the Ukrainian government has the will to sort this out, but it needs to find a way fast.

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