Recently, former Liberal Party leader John Hewson argued for a camel-inside-the-Liberal-tent approach to deal with the media grenades and the clearly unsatisfied ambitions of Tony Abbott. Give him a role in the forthcoming election campaign, Hewson argued.
When I read about this charitable idea and when I also read Abbott’s “I Was Right on National Security” article in a recent edition of the ultra-conservative magazine Quadrant, I was inevitably reminded of the post-downfall actions of Margaret Thatcher, one of Abbott’s greatest heroes. There are divergences in the twin narratives, but the similarities are striking.
Thatcher, too, was forced out by her own party in November 1990 after it became clear that, if she stayed on, the Conservative party would lose the forthcoming 1992 general election. After 11 and a half years in office, the Iron Lady of the 1980s — a politician beloved by the conservative base — was under threat from her immediate colleagues. The background to this seemingly improbable move by party leaders is as follows.
First, the Thatcher government had just brought in a deeply unpopular and socially divisive measure, the 1989 poll tax, a move that was not a million miles away in character and intent from the Abbott government’s deeply unpopular and socially divisive 2014 budget. There was a difference of course. While the Thatcher poll tax was imposed on a largely irate electorate, the Abbott government’s 2014 budget was blocked by an irate Senate.
Second, in 1990 Thatcher was faced by opposition from her senior cabinet members, particularly by popular ex-businessman and political progressive Michael Heseltine, whose wavy locks and dynamic personality had earned him the media nickname of “Tarzan”. Thatcher loathed the reformist Heseltine, just as Abbott detests the centrist Turnbull.
Third, while Thatcher’s authoritarian style of government had been a politically successful novelty in the 1980s, her 1990 cabinet regarded her entrenched management style as an idiosyncratic and dysfunctional form of tyranny. Thatcher was, by now, out of touch with the majority of immediate party colleagues — a state of affairs exacerbated by her obsession with attacking the European Union and her focus on international security issues. These fixations came at the expense of responding to the 1990s zeitgeist of building social and political consensus. Consensus was not Thatcher’s natural style. Nor is it Abbott’s style.
Matters came to a head in November 1990 with a call for a leadership ballot of UK MPs. Thatcher’s own response to these machinations was that Conservative Party colleagues, loyal to a fault, would not remove a sitting prime minister, an Abbott belief as well.
As it happened, and in a development that varies from the Abbott narrative, Thatcher failed to win an outright mandate in the first prime ministerial ballot on November 20, 1990. This left her mortally wounded. Rather than lose to the charismatic Heseltine in a second ballot, the prime minister stepped down, giving the anti-Heseltine forces time to caucus. In the end, the non-charismatic John Major, regarded as a safe pair of hands at the tiller, was elected as Thatcher’s successor. Heseltine went on to become environment minister and deputy prime minister in his friend John Major’s government.
The ex-prime minister (and later baroness) saw her demise as a personal disaster. She became tearful, bad-tempered and, to her inner circle, seemed deranged. However, despite mutterings from those loyal to her about a possible return to office, Thatcher had the sense and the dignity to resist such ideas. She recognised that her career as a high-profile politician was over — unlike, it seems, Tony Abbott.
Even so, Thatcher could not resist commenting in negative terms on major domestic and foreign developments during the 1990s, much to Major’s exasperation. Her most ill-judged attack on her successor has a contemporary Australian resonance. During the 1992 general election campaign, Thatcher remarked in a Newsweek interview that John Major could not possibly be his own man because, “he inherited all those great achievements of the past eleven and a half years”.
By the mid-1990s, with a Labour landslide imminent, the former prime minister, somewhat deludedly, then saw herself as party mentor of a second stage of the hardline Thatcherite policies of the late 1970s and 1980s. Her proposition was rejected by Major, by now sick of her public undermining of his government. John Major anyway fell to Blair’s New Labour in 1997, a right-of-centre government generally and, incongruously, now regarded as having built its policy foundations on Thatcher’s legacy.
Moving back to more recent events, in what must have been an unintended irony regarding the Thatcher legacy, Abbott gave the Second Annual Margaret Thatcher Lecture in London a month after his dismissal from office, in which he commented that the Thatcher administration was all about getting things done. The irony lies in the fact that Thatcher had 11 and a half years in office to get things done, for good or for ill. Abbott, in contrast, and for good reason, had less than two years in office, in which he achieved little of substance apart from reducing revenue by abolishing the carbon tax and strengthening the Rudd government’s inhumane boat arrivals policy. Thanks to his confrontational style, his economic illiteracy and thanks also to his folie a deux with chief of staff Peta Credlin, Abbott was removed precisely because he had been unable to get things done, leaving his colleagues and a majority of electors keen to see him go.
The combined circus and soap opera that was the Abbott administration of 2013-15 leads me to believe that we may be a long way from witnessing a commemorative Liberal Party First Annual Tony Abbott Lecture. Or maybe we will witness such an event, since political memory and revisionist history are fickle things.