Keir Starmer breaks the great Labour taboo: Praising Margaret Thatcher

LONDON — You can overhaul your party, expel your predecessor, and rip up a host of left-wing pledges. Just don’t praise Margaret Thatcher.

Keir Starmer — the opposition Labour leader who polls suggest is firmly on track to become the U.K.’s next prime minister — provoked howls of outrage this weekend in mildly praising the former free-marketeer Conservative PM, who remains a deeply divisive figure on the left.

On Monday, Starmer was forced once again to defend his respect for Thatcher for having had “a mission and a plan,” as his comments risked overshadowing a major economic speech.

The tempest erupted after Starmer made a deliberate pitch to Tory voters in the right-leaning Telegraph newspaper. The Labour boss hailed Thatcher as one of the few modern leaders to enact “meaningful change in modern British politics.”

“Margaret Thatcher sought to drag Britain out of its stupor by setting loose our natural entrepreneurialism,” he said of the Conservative PM, whose deregulation of the City of London, battle with trade unions, and sale of social housing stock continue to rile parts of Starmer’s own party.

The normally supportive Daily Mirror newspaper splashed its Monday front page with the backlash, its leader column thundering that Starmer was “playing with fire.”

Jeremy Corbyn, the former Labour leader stripped of the party whip by Starmer in 2020, took to X to voice his anger. “Every week, I speak to renters threatened with eviction,” he said. “Homeless people struggling to survive. Parents using food banks. Elderly people who can’t afford heating. That is the legacy of Thatcherism. We will never achieve meaningful change until it ends for good.”

Momentum, the left-wing pressure group that backed Corbyn, also took aim, saying Starmer’s praise of Thatcher “isn’t smart politics. It’s a shift to the right, and a failure of Labour values.” Scottish politicians, meanwhile, accused the Labour leader of “insulting” people in Scotland, where Thatcher’s pursuit of de-industrialization hit hard in the 1980s.

Cabinet loyalists scrambled to clarify Starmer’s remarks. Pat McFadden, dispatched to the airwaves to sell Labour’s message on Monday morning, insisted Starmer’s comments were “not an endorsement of Thatcher’s policies,” but instead a recognition she was a “conviction politician.”

‘She had a mission’

As he gave an economic pitch Monday afternoon, Starmer told journalists he had been trying to contrast post-war leaders — including Labour’s Clement Attlee and Tony Blair — who had “a driving sense of purpose,” with those who merely “drifted.”

“That doesn’t meant that I agree with what she did,” he said of Thatcher. “But you don’t have to agree with someone to recognise she had a mission, and a plan — in her particular case about entrepreneurship.”

Jeremy Corbyn, the former Labour leader stripped of the party whip by Starmer in 2020, took to X to voice his anger | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

It’s not the first time a Labour bigwig has sought to tap into Thatcher’s legacy — and irked the left in the process.

Then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown invited Thatcher for tea at No. 10 Downing Street in 2007, while Peter Mandelson — a key architect of Labour’s reinvention under Tony Blair in the 1990s — once provocatively wrote “we are all Thatcherites now.”

Starmer has been trying to cast himself as tough on public spending, warning his party not to expect him “to quickly turn on the spending taps” if he wins power.