As I said yesterday, I spent Monday driving down from Scotland, listening to hour upon hour of coverage about Mrs Thatcher’s death. When the news was announced that David Cameron was cutting short his meetings with European leaders to return to London, I thought ‘why?’ The answer is perhaps becoming clearer.
What would he, as Prime Minister, be expected to do when the death of such an important public figure was announced, that he could not have done overseas? First, he would be expected to speak on behalf of the nation and, as he was like her a leader of the Conservatives, their political party. Second, he might be expected to make a call to the family. Third, to make sure all necessary arrangements were in place. All doable from anywhere in the world.
I know from my time in Downing Street that there are plans, kept under regular review, for the arrangements in the event of the death of senior public figures, like ex Prime Ministers and members of the Royal Family. I know too that the plans for Margaret Thatcher’s death were reviewed more than once since David Cameron became Prime Minister, and that in the event of her death during a Parliamentary recess, the guidance was clear there would be no recall of Parliament, and that tributes should be made in both Houses on the first day back. This is what happened when Jim Callaghan died, for example.
The Conservatives are supposed to believe in tradition and precedent. Yet Cameron decided to ditch both, tear up his own travel plans, and head back to London effectively to demand a recall of Parliament. He is now saying that this also had the support of The Speaker and Ed Miliband. The truth is it was hard for Ed Miliband to say anything but yes, Prime Minister, or fall into a trap that would have had the Right accusing him of tribally disrespecting a huge national figure. I understand that if the Labour leader had said No, The Speaker would have rejected the demand for a recall. Prime Ministers are rightly powerful people. Cameron used that power to make sure that what he wanted happened. His own chief whip was seemingly taken by surprise. The Speaker’s office instructed staff shortly after the death was announced that there would be no recall, because that was what their well rehearsed plans stated.
So we are left with the question – why? What was so urgent that these tributes could not wait until Parliament was back? And it is hard to escape the conclusion that as a politician, not as a national leader, Mr Cameron and his team saw some advantage. Perhaps, as has been suggested to me by a civil servant, he was worried that the many Thatcher worshippers on the Murdoch papers, the Mail, the Telegraph and the Express would turn their ire further upon him if he did not bow down in worship with them. Perhaps he felt some potential benefit in associating himself closely with a strong leader who, in death, was likely to have greater focus on achievements than failings. Perhaps he felt that this association would help him with his right wing which fears he is not a strong leader, and that his brand of Conservatism is shipping support to UKIP. Perhaps he thinks her presence back at the heart of national debate will help him with the difficult decisions ahead, on welfare for example.
Whatever the possible reasoning, the fact is that it is the break with tradition and precedent, the recall of Parliament, and the nature of the funeral arrangements – effectively a State funeral by stealth, without full Parliamentary approval – which have politicised the death in a way that was not necessary and risks becoming horribly divisive, that word so often associated with Mrs Thatcher’s style and policies.
That papers who have long believed she should have been sanctified have done so should surprise nobody. But Cameron should not have put himself in a position where it looks like he is joining in.