“You turn if you want to,” Margaret Thatcher famously told her critics, nearly 37 years ago. “The lady is not for turning.”
The quotation has gone down in political folklore, an encapsulation of the former Prime Minister’s uncompromising and determined approach to government.
Number 10 Downing Street’s current incumbent was compared to the late Baroness Thatcher after she annihilated Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn at Prime Minister’s Questions upon taking the top job last summer. Her style at the despatch box was reminiscent of the former Tory leader, and despite ideological differences between the two women, May is also known to be similarly stubborn.
Yesterday, however, her government bowed to pressure and performed its first major U-turn. The chancellor Philip Hammond’s flagship Budget policy, a rise in National Insurance contributions for the self-employed, was unceremoniously scrapped following intense opposition on the Conservative backbenches.
The climbdown left Hammond red-faced, and May will no doubt be content to see a fellow colleague take the blame. Nonetheless, she should do more than just hide behind her chancellor. The PM should learn the value of an open, honest, and ultimately sensible change of tack.
Away from the drama of yesterday’s U-turn, international trade secretary Liam Fox admitted to a widening Cabinet split over the government’s migration numbers. Fox, along with many senior colleagues including Hammond and Boris Johnson, believes students should be excluded from the Conservatives’ target of reducing net migration to below 100,000 per year.
“It’s an ongoing argument inside government,” Fox said.
Their views are shared throughout the UK. Despite widespread opposition to high levels of immigration, surveys show that voters, on the whole, are not concerned about foreign students.
Business groups, economists and education specialists, meanwhile, despair at government attempts to limit foreign students – a nonsensical threat to one of this country’s most successful exports. It is crazy to restrict people from coming to the UK for a short period of time during which they inject money into both our education system and broader economy.
The Prime Minister has been fighting colleagues over this issue for years. It has perhaps become a matter of principle, a case of showing her strength. Now she has made it to the top, however, May has no cause to remain so obdurate, and should be brave enough to recognise her Cabinet colleagues’ arguments and perform a long-overdue U-turn of her own.