Walking the tightrope? Cameron, Miliband and Margaret Thatcher’s death

From the very moment Margaret Thatcher’s death was announced on Monday, there was a tremendous outpouring of views on her life, legacy and whether she should be loved or loathed.

From the ex-coal miner who lost his job to the Basildon bloke who bought his own council house, opinions from all corners of the country and indeed the world, have been offered on the tenure of Britain’s first female Prime Minister.

Somewhat inevitably, there has been a keen focus in the media on the impact of her 11 year premiership upon the main political parties today. All eyes were on yesterday’s marathon seven and a half hour Parliamentary session, after the House was recalled to pay tribute to Lady Thatcher. There was particular pressure on David Cameron and Ed Miliband who were tasked with setting the tone of the debate with their opening statements.

On the surface, it seemed that the Leader of the Opposition had the most to lose from his statement. Having already condemned the raucous parties that took place on the night of Thatcher’s death, Miliband was keen to distance himself from his party’s reputedly ‘radical’ past, associated with Labour’s abysmal 1983 election result. Miliband was never going to be overwhelmingly critical of her premiership, as this would risk alienating former Thatcher voters in swing constituencies whose support he needs to make his vision of ‘One Nation Labour’ a reality. However, he risked charges of hypocrisy if he lavished praise upon a former Prime Minister who, to put it mildly, is not fondly remembered in the Labour ranks.

Less obviously, the current Prime Minister was also faced with a conundrum. Of course he was going to praise Thatcher, but if he recalled the 1980s with rose-tinted spectacles, Cameron risked saying goodbye to swathes of voters who are anti-Thatcher, mainly in the North of England, who the Conservatives need to tap into if they are to gain an overall majority in 2015.

As it happened, both the party leaders’ speeches were relatively uncontroversial. Cameron described Lady Thatcher as a “remarkable leader” and frequently mentioned the c-word (conviction) when describing her as a politician. Miliband won praise from Conservative MPs for what the press are calling a “statesmanlike” speech, where he said he “disagreed with much of what she did” but honoured her “personal achievements.”

Media coverage of Thatcher’s legacy will undoubtedly continue long after her funeral. A week is a long time in politics and both Miliband and Cameron will have to tread carefully to prevent alienating voters on the issue – one ill-judged or flippant statement about Thatcher’s premiership could result in a savaging from the press. However, if a week is a long time, the next General Election will seem like a million years away – the debates surrounding Thatcher may seem crucial now but their impact upon voters at the ballot box are likely to be negligible by 2015.

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