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Changes to the Conservative Party Ideology: Margaret Thatcher to Theresa May

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 3133 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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Explain how and why the ideology and main policies of the Conservative Party have changed under successive leaders from Margaret Thatcher to Theresa May


With the exception of a thirteen year period straddling the Millennium, the Conservative Party has dominated the British political system for the past forty years, bringing about shifts in the state, economy and society as well as defining the character of British political debate (Griffiths & Leach, 2018). However, that is not to say that the ideology and policy of the party has remained constant. In fact, there has been seven different leaders in that period and so it is inevitable that some changes occurred in line with the shifts in leadership. This essay will examine the ideological approach and policies of Margaret Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron and Theresa May as well as those formulated opposition by the successive leaders of William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. This will facilitate a comparative analysis and chart the evolution of the Conservative Party between 1979 and 2019. This will be done to address the question of how and why ideology and policy has changed in line with the thesis that  the main policies have changed based on the political, economic and social context, but the ideological positions of the leaders have been more nuanced, based upon the need to appeal to the public as well as embracing personal differences in elements like attitudes towards the European Union and immigration.

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher is one of the iconic figures in the history of the Conservative Party and was the major agenda setting leader of the post-war era. Her policies and ideological position were fundamentally intertwined. For instance, Griffith and Leach (2008) argue that she was a conviction politician who rolled back the state and sought to create a free market economy that embraced neoliberal values and monetarism, or tight control of the supply of money by government, thus reducing spending. This is often interpreted as an ideological position because it essentially rejected what had gone before but can be explained by the need to meet the challenges presented by the crises of the 1970s, such as high unemployment, high welfare payments and a stagnating economy. Further, Griffiths and Leach (2008, p. 38) assert that Thatcher’s policy package, or Thatcherism, may be interpreted as an ideological position because it sought to institute a “set of ideals” beginning with a strong central state, making strategic cuts to encourage free market principles. This is reinforced by Leach’s (2015, p. 67) observation that “[w]hat marked Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher off from most of her predecessors and the mainstream conservative tradition was her overtly ideological approach to politics, her populism, and her radicalism, in contrast with past pragmatism, elitism and cautious gradualism.”  This suggests that the economic and social crises of the era gave rise to Thatcher’s policies and Thatcherism as an ideological position.

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Of course, there is a reciprocity evident in the relationship between policies and ideological position in that her absolute faith in her own policy positions did see Thatcher introduce policies that elicited vehement response, such as the poll tax and the demolition of traditional industries in favour of services, but it gave her momentum where she needed it, such as the negotiation of a rebate with the now European Union. In this sense, Thatcher’s ideological position was based upon her own methods of working as opposed to a deliberate attempt to end the status quo, and her policies were necessitated by the context of the era. This is reinforced by her ‘Renewal of Britain’ speech in 1979, in which she declared: “The mission of this Government is much more than the promotion of economic progress. It is to renew the spirit and the solidarity of the nation. To ensure that these assertions lead to action, we need to inspire a new national mood, as much as to carry through legislation” (Thatcher, 1979, n. pag.). This statement of intent undoubtedly laid the foundation on which she was able to build and therefore explains Conservative Party policy, but it also laid the foundation for her successor’s approach to government too.

John Major

Although John Major took office in the middle of an electoral cycle, that is not to say that he embarked upon a seamless continuation of Thatcher’s policies. Instead, he “…tried to strike a balance between continuity (building on the Thatcherite legacy) and change (with a return to the rhetoric of “One-Nation Toryism”) and sought to project a more caring image that contrasted starkly with Thatcher’s stronger, more unyielding approach (Haigron, 2009, p. 177). Ideologically, then, Major returned the party to its roots of safeguarding and preserving the principles, structures and institutions of democracy in a socially and economically pragmatic way in order to work towards the benefit of the average citizen (Seawright, 2005; Holmes, 2008). Although Thatcher had moved away from that thinking and ideologically departed from the traditional pragmatism of the party, Major was able to return to that sensibility with little disruption to the policy program.

Indeed, he did not abandon Thatcherism, embracing the core policies of his predecessor, including low taxation in order to encourage private enterprise, privatisation and deregulation, low inflation, law and order and a right to buy on the part of homeowners (Haigron, 2009, p. 178). In providing some continuity, Major stabilised the party in the wake of the rifts that led to the Thatcher’s resignation as leader in the first instance. This does go some way to explaining why the ideology of the party became more overtly practiced whereas policy shifts were less noticeable. For instance, the poll tax was swiftly and unceremoniously dropped (Leach, 2015) and immediately forgotten but the return to tax and spend alongside a more gentle approach to encouraging privatisation. Of course, Major’s policies concerning the Gulf War and attempting to broker peace in Northern Ireland mark significant departures from Thatcher’s focus on domestic policy, but this was necessitated by the challenges of the global landscape (Chatterjee, 2010). In effect, this explains that foreign policy in particular must be reactive as well as proactive and therefore often lacks continuity. In addition, it may depend on the actions of others and therefore is unlikely to fit into any pattern of ideological action. Of course, the need for peace and stability where possible within global norms does establish a collective ideological position, as does supporting allies, so this does reflect somewhat upon why ideology may remain stable while policy changes between leaders.

In Opposition

In opposition, the Conservative Party under William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard faced a significant dilemma (Holmes, 2008). It is notable that Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair actively pursued some areas of Thatcher’s policies “…such as privatisation, competition in the provision of public services and trade union reforms” (Leach, 2015, p. 124). As such, it was necessary for the leadership of the party to move away from policies that it had previously pursued in order to be able to perform its function as an effective opposition. Similarly, the ideological position of One Nation Conservativism was perceived to be somewhat toxic based upon the legacy of Thatcher and Major in terms of recession and the degradation of local services as a result of a focus on privatisation. Leach (2015, p. 83) points out that its economic policies were particularly problematic as taxing and spending was not a viable approach as society had changed: “It was no longer true that state spending mainly benefitted the working class and was paid for by taxes raised from the middle classes… [who] favoured tax and spend policies, while the old working class might have been tempted by tax cuts.” In effect, this suggests that policies were ineffective and did not appeal to anyone, especially because Labour appeared to manage the economy well and provide public spending programs that improved services that communities benefitted from. Policy and ideology changes can therefore be explained in the context of opposition because they are often reactive as opposed to proactive and therefore serve to contribute to the formation of an identity that is able to challenge for power in General Elections. Given what had gone before, it was inevitable that this would mark a shift via an attempt to reclaim credibility as a government in waiting.

David Cameron

David Cameron’s policies and ideological position brought the Conservative Party back into government and, although his first five years as Prime Minister saw cooperation with the Liberal Democrats in the Coalition, success in the 2015 General Election saw the party able to formulate its own policies once again and implement those ideas that departed from Thatcherism (Holmes, 2008). Based upon austerity to fix the fiscal deficit that saw spending as a proportion of GDP (gross domestic product) rise, Cameron’s early policies were geared towards cutting government department budgets and non-essential services. This was broadly successful, as can be seen here:

Fig. 1: The Deficit as a Proportion of GDP (Full Fact, 2014, n. pag.)

However, it also led to policies that were broadly derided and abandoned, such as his Big Society, an idea that saw communities come together in order to fill the gaps that austerity had left behind (Dillon & Fanning, 2016). This was far more community-centric than either Thatcher or Major, who had preferred private enterprise, but it did make sense in the context of the era.

Cameron’s 2015 Manifesto drew upon the need for a strong economy, stressing the importance of austerity and cuts to welfare, education, transport, security and other similar areas in order to preserve services for future generations and encourage the economy to recover from the legacy of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008:

It is a plan for every stage of your life. For your new-born baby, there will be the world’s best medical care. For your child, there will be a place at an excellent school. As you look for your first job, we are building a healthy economy that provides a good career for you with a decent income. As you look for that first home, we will make sure the Government is there to help. As you raise your family, we will help you with childcare. And as you grow older, we will ensure that you have dignity in retirement.

(Conservative Party, 2015, p. 5).

This formed the basis of Cameron’s policies, with the objective of them appealing to the middle classes and drawing individuals to the party that valued the institutions and structures that were at the heart of the nation. That is not to say that he was ideologically a One Nation Tory, but rather that he drew upon that ideological position to appeal to his desired audience. In fact, he was not considered to be ideological at all but rather committed to reading polls and voters in order to support services and earn a reputation as the leader who “decontaminated the party” (Bogdanor, 2010, n. pag.). In effect, a shift in voter and their priorities led to Conservative Party policy and ideology evolving to keep pace with such changes.

Theresa May

Theresa May’s tenure as leader is dominated by what brought that of Cameron to an end – Brexit. Although a declared Remainer prior to the Brexit referendum to leave the European Union in 2016, May’s major policies relate to or, more accurately, driven by Brexit, which has dominated the British political landscape over the past two years (Stamp, 2016). This is a significant departure from what had gone before but is necessitated by the context in which she is leader. No previous Conservative Party leaders had to deal with the process of divorcing the UK from the EU. Although it is not clear whether May’s own personal perspective of the EU has changed over time and neither is it clear whether the majority of the Conservative Party are in favour of Brexit, it is clear that the scale of the challenge is driving May’s domestic agenda. There are other policy areas of interest that reflect upon the ideology of the party opposed to the divisions within it. For instance, she abandoned established Conservative Party support for business by tapping into an issue that provoked outrage amongst the people:

Theresa May promised to be on the side of “ordinary working class people” as she vowed to get tough with tax-dodgers, reckless multinational companies and greedy bosses. In her first party conference speech as prime minister, Mrs May broke with 40 years of Conservatism by pledging to lead a Government that will intervene in economic markets to improve society.

(Merrick, 2016, n. pag.)

Such intervention is undoubtedly innovative and essentially abandons the Tory base in favour of populism. However, that is not to say that May has focused on welfare or equality. Universal Credit and the Hostile Environment policies pertaining to reform of the welfare system and the pledge to reduce immigration and deport illegal migrants have both been extremely problematic (Ryan, 2018) and have been perceived as pushing the party further to the right ideologically, thus departing from Cameron’s more friendly tone and ostensibly more progressive policies. In effect, her policy choices have served to mirror the ideological position of the far right as opposed to the centrism of what had gone before, thus reflecting the sentiment that brought about the Leave vote to begin with.


In conclusion, the analysis in this essay has explored the questions of how and why the ideology and main policies of the Conservative Party has changed under successive leaders. It found that policies and ideology has shifted over time in response to events and changes in public opinion, although it has broadly retained constant values. The Conservative Party is currently situated in a very complex political landscape in which there are continual changes in order to accommodate events, crises, public opinion and a range of other factors that would impact on the state of the country and public opinion, although the balance has clearly shifted to prioritise the latter over time. Ideologically, the foundation of the Conservative Party has experienced changes in line with the individual, reflecting on the perspective of the leadership. As such, the analysis supports the thesis that the main policies have changed based on the political, economic and social context, but the ideological positions of the leaders have been more nuanced, based upon the need to appeal to the public as well as embracing personal differences in elements like attitudes towards the European Union and immigration.


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