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Thatcher at a turning point


With the Conservative Party conference under way (via screens) we thought this was a good moment to revisit a memorable moment from a previous conference.

WE’VE had so many U-turns from Boris Johnson lately that we’re getting dizzy. But 40 years ago this month, on October 10, 1980, we were treated to the most famous Tory non U-turn – courtesy of Margaret Thatcher.

Under pressure from some of her ‘wet’ colleagues to moderate her tough economic policies, the Premier told the Conservative Conference in Brighton: ‘To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say: You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning!’

It was a clever, memorable phrase – penned by her speechwriter, the actor-playwright Ronald Millar – that defined Thatcher and Thatcherism, for better or worse.

To her admirers, it bolstered her image as the indomitable Iron Lady. To her critics, it confirmed that they were faced with an obdurate, blinkered authoritarian who became known as TBW (That Bloody Woman) or Tina (There Is No Alternative).

However, watching the video, it’s interesting to see that ‘You turn if you want to’ got the biggest laughs and applause from the audience. The reaction to ‘The lady’s not for turning!’ was muted by contrast. But that’s the punchline that deservedly went into the history books.

It’s also instructive to see the uncomprehending faces of some of her Cabinet members, such as Chancellor Geoffrey Howe. She is said to have been at loggerheads with most of them over her refusal to change tack.

At the time of the speech, Thatcher had been in power for almost 18 months, since trouncing Jim Callaghan’s washed-out Labour administration following the strike-ridden ‘Winter of Discontent’.

Even then, discontent with her was simmering within her own party ranks and in Britain at large. As she began her battle against inflation, then running at close to 18 per cent, unemployment had soared by 500,000 to two million, and Right to Work protesters were picketing the conference hall.

Already reviled as ‘milk snatcher Thatcher’, for her decision as Education Secretary in 1971 to stop free milk for junior school pupils, she now became a hate figure to millions, not all on the Left. But many voters acknowledged that here was a politician who seemed to know what she was doing and where she was going.

Today, we have a Prime Minister who is apparently not for turning on the coronavirus crisis, despite a damaged economy and a confused, lockdown-weary population.

Being not for turning is all very well if – like Thatcher in 1980 –you have a plan. The trouble is, Boris Johnson seems to have no plan but to take the advice of his increasingly unbelievable scientists and muddle through.

There are now significant rumblings of discontent within the Tory ranks at his lack of grip, glaringly exposed by last week’s shambolic ‘misspeaking’ on his own government’s virus rules. 

If Johnson does not acknowledge that a firm political decision is needed soon to get us out of this Covid-19 mess, he would do well to remember that, in the end, the Tory Party turned out the lady who was not for turning.

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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