Sir Keir Starmer criticised for crediting Margaret Thatcher’s ‘sense of purpose’

Sir Keir Starmer was accused of trying to “ride on the coattails” of Margaret Thatcher’s success by praising the former prime minister while appealing to Tory voters.

The Labour leader, in a move likely to annoy some on the left of his party, used a Sunday Telegraph opinion piece to praise Conservative Mrs Thatcher for having sought to “drag Britain out of its stupor by setting loose our natural entrepreneurialism”.

He named her alongside former Labour prime ministers Tony Blair and Clement Attlee as those leaders in modern British politics who sought to deliver “meaningful change” by acting “in service of the British people, rather than dictating to them”.

Margaret Thatcher
Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher (PA)

Sir Keir, speaking to the BBC, said Mrs Thatcher had a “driving sense of purpose” although he made sure to stress his comments did not mean he agreed with what she did.

But Sir Keir did appeal to Tory voters to make a switch at the next general election, urging them to “look again at Labour” as he criticised the Government for allowing the UK to “drift” over the last 13 years.

Health Secretary Victoria Atkins told Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips on Sky News: “I think the public will see this for what it is.

“Don’t forget, he wasn’t appealing to Margaret Thatcher’s entrepreneurial spirit when he was courting votes from the hard-left.

“And I suspect the great lady herself would view a man that is trying to ride on the coattails of her success with the following words: ‘No, no, no’.”

Ms Atkins was referencing a 1990 Commons rebuke Mrs Thatcher gave to then European Commission boss Jacques Delors as he sought greater Brussels control.

Scotland’s First Minister Humza Yousaf, writing on X, said: “What Thatcher did to mining and industrial communities was not ‘entrepreneurialism’, it was vandalism.

“Starmer praising Thatcher is an insult to those communities in Scotland, and across the UK, who still bear the scars of her disastrous policies.”

Sir Keir, speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, said: “The point I’m making in the article really is that you can distinguish political leaders, certainly in the post-war period, into those that had a plan and those that drifted essentially.

“And that’s why I referenced: Attlee, who obviously had a strong plan, New Jerusalem; Tony Blair, who captured the optimism of the 1990s having changed the Labour Party; and Thatcher, who did have a plan for entrepreneurialism, had a mission, it doesn’t mean I agree with what she did but I don’t think anybody could suggest that she didn’t have a driving sense of purpose.

“And the reason I referenced all three of them is because we’ve drifted as a country the last 13 years, we’ve declined as a country in the last 13 years, and the characteristic of an incoming Labour government – if we’re privileged enough to come in to serve – will be this sense of mission, this sense of having a plan that we’re operating to, a driving sense of purpose.”

Sir Keir said he has “fundamentally changed” Labour compared to the Jeremy Corbyn-led party defeated at the 2019 general election.

Sir Keir added: “What I say to those many people who will have voted Tory in the past is if you believe in not just fixing your country but renewing it and taking it forward, if you want to be part of a national project that will take our country forward, build up our economy in the way we want, build our security, make sure that we take advantage of the transition that comes with the energy transition, then the Labour Party is the party for you.

“I think there are many people in that camp who say ‘Look, I may have voted for the Tories in the past, but I do believe in my country, I do believe in a sense of purpose and the national mission is for me’.”

He added: “I do want to persuade those that have voted Tory in the past to vote Labour this time around, look again at Labour.”

Sir Keir was told that by saying such things, including about Mrs Thatcher and his stance on the Israel-Gaza conflict, he has left some Labour members feeling unrepresented.

He replied: “My focus, whether it’s on the renewal that our country needs or the resolution of the awful situation in Israel and Gaza is not on the Labour Party members and the Labour Party movement.

“We’ve spent a decade before I became leader obsessing about our membership and having a discussion with ourselves.

“My change of the Labour Party means we’ve turned inside out and we face the voters and face the country.”