This brings us to the most controversial of Tory leaders in the person of Margaret Thatcher. While she carries the distinction of being the party’s longest serving Prime Minister, she also earned the party disrepute and growing unpopularity – something that confronts the party even today. Even two decades after retirement from politics and party leadership, Margaret Thatcher is still being blamed for the Conservatives’ hiatus from power since 1997. The party has never seen three consecutive defeats in parliamentary elections as it did since 1997. Ideally, such a debacle should have led to a revamp similar to the one conducted by Rab Butler after the Second World War. But Thatcher had not only altered the common pattern of Tory governments by pursuing a new right-wing policy framework, she had also distorted the nature and image of Conservative party leadership. To expound further,
“for most of the 20th century, Conservative leaders were successful because, on the whole, they refused to place themselves at the mercy of their activists. Churchill, Eden and Macmillan were merely the most prominent leaders who felt uneasy with Tory activists, and instead saw their role as being to represent the aspirations and needs of the vast swathe of public opinion outside the party. This led to electoral success, and that, in turn, placated the activists. Thatcher was unusual in that she drew her inspiration from the deepest wells of Conservative activism. She carried the same, insular ideological baggage, and viewed the world through the same prism, as her constituency followers.” (Kampfner, 2003)
As a result, the Tories’ activists found their ideal leader in Margaret Thatcher. Following Thatcher, her successors have not been able to pose any meaningful challenge to the right-wing’s stranglehold on policy. More worryingly, the exercise of choosing candidates for parliamentary seats, as a result of becoming an entirely local affair, “has led to a much more ideological brand of MP”. Hence, under the reign of Margaret Thatcher, the liberal elements in the party leadership had been overwhelmed by the ultra-conservative grass roots supporters (Kampfner, 2003).
The cornerstone of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership was not its compassion towards British citizens, but rather a ruthless approach to what she deemed as progress. Thatcher, more than any other leader of her party, was the most vocal in promoting capitalism and its attendant privatization. The merit of such dogmatic approach to governance is debatable but she nevertheless forced many changes in the name of progress. But Thatcher’s iron-fisted efforts were to leave the Conservative party and its political philosophy a legacy of disrepute. In other words, it ended up being a traumatic process “that cost her the leadership and nearly destroyed her party. No Conservative leader after her has been able to slow the party’s decline into a rancorous rabble. If John Major was unable to nudge it back into the mainstream, William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith fared no better in their attempts to lead it from the right” (Coxall & Robins, 2003). With ties to tradition broken in this way, the party had become impossible to manage.
A little later in the party’s history, the rise and fall of William Hague demonstrates the sort of weak leadership the party has come to be associated with in recent years. Hague, who showed a lot of promise and potential, to go along with his pleasant and amiable personality, took the Tory party into deeper chaos with his infamous speech about “a foreign land”, further alienating the party from racial minorities inBritain. Coming at a critical time as it did, the speech was even condemned by the parties own backbenchers. For example,