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Keir Starmer sparks backlash with praise of Margaret Thatcher

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Sir Keir Starmer, head of the UK’s opposition Labour party, has heaped praise on Margaret Thatcher in a pitch to Tory voters, provoking a backlash from both leftwing activists and the Conservative party.

Starmer chose The Telegraph, the rightwing newspaper considered the house journal of Tory members, as the platform for his thoughts on the former Conservative prime minister.

He lauded Thatcher as one of three key change-makers in modern British political history, alongside Tony Blair and Clement Attlee, who realised that “politics must act in service of the British people, rather than dictating to them”.

Thatcher, a three-time election winner, “sought to drag Britain out of its stupor by setting loose our natural entrepreneurialism”, Starmer wrote.

Expounding on his thoughts on Sunday, he told BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House that Thatcher had had a “mission” and “driving sense of purpose”.

In a reflection of how toxic the country’s first female prime minister’s legacy remains among many Labour politicians and voters, Starmer was at pains to insist his article “doesn’t mean I agree with what she did”.

He reportedly described Thatcherism as an “authoritarian onslaught” in a socialist magazine in the 1980s. Other Labour frontbenchers have also been highly critical of her policies.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting has in the past heaped censure on her “sink or swim mentality” towards jobs, while on Sunday shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds told Sky News she was a “formidable opponent” but stressed he was not a fan.

Starmer told the BBC that Labour would emulate Thatcher’s “sense of mission”, arguing the country had “drifted” and “declined” during the past 13 years of Conservative-led rule.

Asked if he was seeking Tory votes, he replied “yes”, adding: “I do want to persuade those that voted Tory in the past to vote Labour this time round.”

His warm remarks about Thatcher triggered an angry response from Momentum, the leftwing campaign group within the Labour party.

“Margaret Thatcher laid waste to working-class communities, privatised our public services, and set in train the destruction of the postwar settlement founded by Labour,” said a Momentum spokesperson.

Starmer’s praise of the former Tory prime minister “isn’t smart politics” but “a shift to the right, and a failure of Labour values”, the spokesperson added.

The Labour leader’s intervention also riled Conservative ministers. Richard Holden, Tory party chair, argued that Starmer “will say anything to get elected”, adding: “This is yet another classic example of him saying what he thinks people want to hear.”

Riffing on the so-called Iron Lady’s famous response to proposals on European integration, Victoria Atkins, the health secretary, told Sky News: “I suspect the great lady herself would view a man who is trying to ride on the coattails of her success with the following words ‘No, No, No’.”

Away from the controversy over his comments, Starmer will declare on Monday that growth “must become Labour’s obsession”, as he reiterates that the party will face “huge constraints” on public spending if it wins power next year.

Speaking at a conference in London hosted by the Resolution Foundation think-tank, he will say: “Anyone who expects an incoming Labour government to quickly turn on the spending taps is going to be disappointed.”

But he will add that Britain’s “flexible product and finance markets, a highly educated population, and world class universities” are “huge assets” that can trigger growth. 

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