East meets Westminster: Duelling leaders could learn from past masters

THE battle between David Cameron and Ed Miliband is fast becoming one of British politics most intriguing duels.

Both have enjoyed a good year for different reasons and both are in their stride – but they are pale imitations of their respective party’s greatest modern leaders.

Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher are (arguably) Labour and the Conservative’s best. And they are in many ways similar.

Mrs Thatcher transformed her party and destroyed the opposition for a generation. Tony Blair did the same when he took the reins of Labour in the mid-90s. They were modernisers and reformers and neither were afraid to take on those within their own parties with opposing views.

They won election after election and people liked them even when the media did not.

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But do Mr Cameron and Mr MIliband have the qualities that made their predecessors so special? Times are different now for both parties but Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband or someone close to them thinks “what would Margaret/Tony have done?” on a regular basis.

Mrs Thatcher would not have enjoyed coalition politics. But she would have gone into the agreement – begrudgingly – as Mr Cameron did rather than not have some grasp of power. But it seems unlikely the Liberal Democrats would have had much joy out of the Iron Lady. As the main player in the relationship she would –as she almost always did – have got her way.

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One former Fleet Street political reporter who was close to the Tory Government of the 1980s described her as “formidable – in the nicest possible way”.

“She spoke her mind with such authority that if she told you black was white you’d listen, weigh up the argument and then agree with her,” he said. “There has never been a politician like her before or since. She took her party and made it electable again. Then she took a country that was on its knees and made it great again.

“Overseas we were starting to be sniggered at after the disasters of the 1970s and she came along and shocked a lot of other leaders with her defiance. And another thing you must remember is she was a woman - and that upset some people, even subconsciously. But it also meant that she could get away with things maybe a man wouldn’t.”

And how does Mr Cameron compare? “He is a PR man so difficult to read – with Thatcher you knew exactly where you stood all the time.”

Mrs Thatcher was a conviction politician – no one could ever say she did not believe in what she did absolutely.

She would have taken much the same route as the PM did over the EU budget - but there would not have been the soul-searching about it before hand.

And she would have enjoyed the cuts and austerity. Publically the Government feels sorry for the tough times everyone is going through but they are determined it is a necessary remedy – and behind closed doors they may secretly love it. Because sooner or later the economy will improve and it will be this generation of Tories that did it, that cleaned up the country. But Mrs Thatcher would not have made any secret about it.

What would she have made of Tony Blair if she had faced him across the hallowed green benches of the Commons? She would have feared him and respected him – it would have been quite a match.

The former political reporter added: “Blair was one of Thatcher’s children – he was not afraid of change, change that was unthinkable before him.

“Who would have dreamed that the Labour party would drop clause four? There was so much anger in the party when he did that but the reason was simple – he wanted to be elected. He wanted power. And he and those who created New Labour knew what they had to do – how they had to change.

“Much like Thatcher before him he often got his own way – but where as she used an abrasive manner Blair was a charmer.

“If he was in a room, everyone knew and all eyes were on him. Some people said that made him untrustworthy. But really I think people were just confused because even when he was delivering bad news he did it with a smile and in a way that made you feel better – it was paternal in many respects.

“Seeing him take on Thatcher at prime minister’s questions would have been a joy. I think Thatcher would have won though – she did not really know how to lose.”

There are elements of Tony Blair in Ed Miliband and however hard the party tried to scrub off his finger prints and erase his image in the Brown-era he casts a long shadow – for better and worse – over the party. In Ed rather than David Miliband they picked the candidate closer to Brown than Blair. But the Labour faithful loved (sometimes on the quiet) Blair because he brought them power and beat the Tories – repeatedly.

Both figures have a legacy which the parties want to distance themselves from at the same time as embrace. But really they should just relax and learn.

As Mr Miliband becomes more human and connects better with the electorate and Mr Cameron grows tougher and more battle-hardened maybe the ghosts of leaders past will begin to be even more evident. Neither man should fight that.

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