While everyone is falling over themselves to make analogies between the Labour Party of the 1980s and that of today under Corbyn (or stressing that it’s not a repeat of that decade), we are also in danger of seeing Theresa May’s time (however long) as Prime Minister through the prism of Margaret Thatcher.
In the post-Brexit world, nothing can be taken for granted anymore when it comes to British politics, so any predictions are fraught with error and future embarrassment. With that, despite the prediction by Norman Tebbit that ‘May will drive Tory members into the arms of UKIP’, I am thinking that Theresa May becoming Prime Minister will split the post-Farage UKIP. While Brexit has not been ensured, UKIP’s most prominent policy has been, more or less, achieved, and in the past, single issue groups have struggled to change their message/strategy once their primary objective has been fulfilled or become irrelevant. Coupled with Farage leaving the leadership spot, UKIP look rudderless and will now try to siphon off the anti-immigration vote from both Labour and the Tories as they will probably re-fashion themselves as the ‘sensible’ anti-immigration party – to the right of the Tories but not associated with fascism of Britain First or the British National Party.
This might continue to be a problem for Labour, but May’s record as Home Secretary and her continued ‘tough’ talk on immigration may attract the ‘soft’ UKIP vote back to the Tories. While Cameron was seen as ‘weak’ on controlling immigration, the Home Office under May made the rules incredibly more difficult for non-EEA migrants and their families (and her comments on the future of EU migrants in the UK have not calmed the fears of many). Some UKIP supporters will think that May has not done enough, but many might be swayed by her track record and ‘effort’ in trying to restrict immigration from the EU and the rest of the world.
This is where the Thatcher comparison comes in. Thatcher’s public pronouncements on immigration in the late 1970s helped make her look ‘tough’ on the issue, particularly her comment in 1978 that people were feeling ‘rather swamped’ by Commonwealth migration. Furthermore, the Conservative Party manifesto for the 1979 election announced that the Tories would introduce ‘firm immigration control’ that would ‘end persistent fears about levels of immigration’. After this, the Tories were able to attract a significant number of voters who might’ve voted for the National Front previously and the NF’s vote was greatly diminished at the 1979 election.*
While I am sceptical about making too closer historical comparisons between May and Thatcher, it is plausible that May’s rhetoric might drive a similar wedge between those who waver between UKIP and the Tories, and those who are ‘rusted on’ UKIP supporters. If a snap election is called, this is certain a possibility. Otherwise, it will depend whether new Home Secretary Amber Rudd follows May’s hardline approach to immigration.