Religious fundamentalists could hold the key to Middle East peace | Jonathan Freedland

Israel's ultra-orthodox parties – so long deemed part of the hawkish right – might just unlock the two-state solution

Everybody knows that religious fundamentalists are part of the Middle East's problem. Everybody knows that Muslim and Jewish extremists make a hard situation harder, delaying the day Palestinians and Israelis find a way to live in peace. Everybody knows that the great Israeli writer Amos Oz is right when he says that so long as the conflict is "a battle over real estate" it can be solved, but once it becomes a holy war only catastrophe beckons.

But what if that conventional wisdom is wrong – or rather, what if it lumps together all religious hardliners too crudely, mistakenly including one group that might not be part of the problem at all, that might in fact be the key to the solution?

The question arises because of one unexpected side-effect of Israel's most recent elections and the new coalition that followed. For the first time in years the ultra-orthodox Jewish parties find themselves in opposition, sitting alongside Labour, the civil rights activists of Meretz and the 11 members of the mainly Arab parties, representing Israel's Palestinian citizens. So long inside successive ruling coalitions, the ultra-orthodox, or haredi, parties are, for now at least, outsiders. That simple fact suggests an intriguing possibility.

First, though, a word or two of definition. There are two parties involved: one, United Torah Judaism, that aims to speak for Ashkenazi religious Jews and whose leaders still wear the distinctive garb of eastern European orthodoxy; and the other, Shas, that seeks to represent those Jews with a Middle Eastern or north African background. Different though they are from each other, the relevant gap is between them and the so-called "national religious camp", whose political arm, Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home party, surged at the last elections straight into government. Bennett is the champion of, among others, the religiously motivated Jewish settlers on the West Bank, those whose faith is inseparable from a muscular brand of nationalism.

For years, these two camps – ultra-orthodox and national religious – co-existed happily, their leaders often sitting side by side in coalition. The distinction between them became ever harder to discern, the haredi parties acquiescing without complaint in the steady rightward drift of the last government.

But that long-established alliance is now over. While the national religious camp enjoys the best seats around the cabinet table, its former partners are outside, experiencing the unfamiliar chill of opposition. What's more, the two groups are now at each other's throats.

For the glue that binds together Binyamin Netanyahu's new coalition is a willingness to confront the ultra-orthodox, insisting that they have been feather-bedded for too long, taking too much from the state and giving too little in return. That's the signature message of Yair Lapid, the TV talkshow host who emerged as the election's big winner and coalition kingmaker. The price of his support was Netanyahu backing Lapid's campaign promise "to share the burden" – code for demanding that the haredim, like everyone else, send their children to join the army or do some form of national service at 18, ending an exemption enjoyed by religious students since the founding of the state. No less threatening to the haredi way of life, Lapid is bent on slashing the fat state subsidies that have long funded ultra-orthodox schools and academies, as well as the haredim's traditionally large families. Now in place as finance minister, Lapid is already wielding his knife.

These twin assaults are devastating for the haredim, whose fury is directed at Lapid but even more hotly at Bennett – who they see as a traitor to his fellow religious Jews for participating in a coalition that imperils their way of life. Suddenly the ideological fissure that always existed between the haredi brand of orthodoxy and the nationalist variety has been pulled wide open, left gaping for all to see. And it's not pretty. Stung by the rejection of their former allies, the haredim have hit the national religious camp where it hurts – threatening to back a settlement freeze, even to boycott settlement produce.

This is the opening that all those who yearn for an end to occupation should be watching closely. It may not look like it, but this is more than a family feud among those who wear different varieties of skullcap. The hard arithmetic of Israeli politics is that the strictly religious parties regularly command close to 20 of the Knesset's 120 seats. That makes them a crucial, even decisive bloc in the formation of a coalition. If the votes of the centre-left and right blocs are deadlocked, as they often are, then it can fall to the haredim to decide who governs – those forces ready to do what needs to be done to implement a two-state solution, or those who refuse.

It's not foolish to think that the haredim could one day choose left over right. Theologically, it makes sense. Ultra-orthodox Jews were historically ambivalent, if not outright hostile, towards Zionism itself, many regarding it as a blasphemous pre-emption of God's will for Jews to organise their own return to Zion when "the ingathering of the exiles" was the sole mandate of the Almighty. Given that attitude to Israel proper, they have no great attachment to the settlement project. Plenty of rabbinic sages have indeed ruled that, if a genuine peace were on offer, Israelis would have a religious duty to give up territory – because even the holiest land is not holier than the sanctity of life. Besides, strict Judaism includes the injunction lo lehitgarot ba-umota, a prohibition against "taunting the non-Jewish nations", pursuing a course that antagonises the world – which the post-1967 occupation so clearly does.

The pragmatic truth is that if a dove-ish Israeli government, even one committed to ending the occupation, were to give the haredim what they want – military exemption and serious funding – the ultra-religious parties would be likely to give it their blessing. That may be hard for the Israeli left to swallow. "Liberal Israel has to make its choice," says Daniel Levy, who runs the Middle East programme for the European Council on Foreign Relations. "What's more important: having the haredim serve in the army or a two-state solution?"

But this is not a matter for the left in Israel alone. There's a role here for the rest of the world. When Bill Clinton was overseeing the ultimately successful peace process for Northern Ireland, he went through a spell of seeing everyone, even the tiniest loyalist splinter group would get a face-to-face meeting in the Oval Office. He knew that every vote would count. Barack Obama and John Kerry – and William Hague for that matter – should take note. Don't just meet the leaders of today's Israeli government, meet the men and women who could form the next one – including the religious fundamentalists who might just hold the key to peace.

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Plan could end in blame game

The long-ago BBC Jerusalem correspondent, Michael Elkins, once lamented that too many war reporters had not served a journalistic apprenticeship by working on a local newspaper. How, he asked, could they understand the grief of a woman in Beirut devastated at seeing her house blown up if they had never witnessed the tears of a lady in Somerset, disappointed to miss out on first prize in the village flower show? They had no measure of comparison.

Elkins was suggesting there is a scale in such matters, with the local at the mild end of the spectrum. Except it doesn't always look that way. In Britain, there are few things that get people more agitated than their immediate surroundings - the more immediate, the more agitated. Just ask those reporters who've covered neighbours at war over a disputed hedge or overgrown leylandii.

Which is why I'm worried about the row currently playing out in my own patch of Stoke Newington and next-door Stamford Hill, home to Britain's largest community of strictly Orthodox Jews.

The trouble began with a proposal by the government that would allow "neighbourhood forums", made up of local people, to make planning decisions previously left to the council. In the spirit of the Big Society, the idea is that communities will take control of their own streets and houses, rather than having to wait for the ruling of the town hall.

Nice in theory, but here's how it's playing out in London N16. Many in the Charedi community like the idea of a forum that will bring planning decisions closer to home, seeing a chance to deal directly with what is their most pressing problem: a shortage of living space. With an estimated average of eight children each, Charedi families need more room.

But that has sparked local opposition from those who worry that if a neighbourhood forum - with a Charedi majority - takes over, it'll instantly lift planning restrictions, enabling Charedim to build outsized extensions that would blight the street or block their neighbours' light.

Worse still, they imagine expanding families suddenly winning the right to concrete over and build on their back gardens.

Predictably, there is plenty of arcane local politics at play. One group bidding to establish a forum is led by Conservative councillors apparently keen to tighten their hold on Charedi votes (and end the Labour-supporting habit still maintained by some of the borough's Charedim).

And, of course, the Charedi community is far from united, some supporting this Tory-backed initiative, others hoping to create a wider, cross-communal forum that would enjoy more non-Jewish support. Things have turned nasty, with allegations of antisemitism and "social cleansing" hurled at those who oppose the forum scheme.

My own view is simple. I don't want to see a system that pits strictly Orthodox Jews against everyone else, one that would cause local people to grow resentful as they watch their streets or gardens become disfigured by excess construction. Right now, if a bad planning decision is taken, people blame the council. What nobody should want is a situation where they would blame the Jews.

Luckily, the Charedi leadership seems to recognise this danger. They are not in favour of some narrow group winning control of planning. Instead, as the indomitable Rabbi Avraham Pinter puts it, they want a forum that is "broad, inclusive and represents all views." I agree. But if it's too tricky to set up a new body that meets all those criteria, I can think of an old one that ticks the same boxes. It's called the local council. Let it decide who can build and where - and let its members take the blame.

Notes on a bombing: five thoughts about Boston | Jonathan Freedland

The last 24 hours have felt like an extended episode of Homeland. Amid all the uncertainty, what are we to make of it?

Nobody knows anything. William Goldman's timeless verdict on Hollywood also applies, it seems, to the handful of spectacular real-life events that resemble – including the manhunt for the suspected Boston bombers, which played out on the 24-hour news networks on Friday like an extended episode of Homeland or 24.

There was a time when the scrambling uncertainty over information, grasping hold of an apparent fact only to see it slip through your fingers, was a process kept safely out of public view, behind the closed doors of police stations and newsrooms. Now a watching world shares in the confusion. Everyone with access to a TV, computer or mobile phone could observe – and indeed add to – the mountain of quasi-information as it piled up: a rumoured raid or sighting here, an apparent revelation about the men's origins or ideological leanings there. As I write, the picture is still hazy. But there are five early observations which seem likely to stand.

1. The boundary between foreign and domestic terrorism has been blurred. The question that nagged in the anxious interlude between the blasts on Monday and the publication of the suspects' photos, even if many were wary of putting it too baldly, was a variant on one of these: Who were these men who could do such a thing? Were they from America or abroad? Were they of us or outside us?

The US, and especially its media, learned a hard lesson after the Oklahoma City bombing – which struck exactly 18 years ago to the day on Friday – when so many rushed to assume that only foreign, presumed to be Muslim, terrorists would inflict such pain on US civilians. The shock at discovering that the bomber was in fact a white supremacist and veteran of the first Gulf war, Timothy McVeigh, went very deep.

After that, Americans understood that there could be homegrown terror – of the McVeigh variety, fuelled by paranoid loathing of the federal government – and the more conventional, international variety, of which 9/11 will forever be the prime example.

But if the Tsarnaev brothers were behind the Boston marathon attack, then the line dividing those two categories is unnervingly fuzzy. For they were not born in the US like McVeigh, but nor were they outsiders like the 19 hijackers of 9/11. They were, instead, newcomers to the US, said to have arrived as children. If Monday's bomb was theirs, does that make the three Bostonians it killed victims of foreign or domestic terror?

The truth is, in today's intensely globalised world, we can no longer think of anywhere as remote. Because far away is right here.

2. These events dent a key American ideal. When four British-born men bombed the London underground (and a bus) on 7 July 2005, it prompted much soul-searching in this country. How could those who had been born and raised here feel so little kinship with their fellow Britons that they would set out to murder scores of them at random? Some, me included, suggested that perhaps we needed to devote more energy into nurturing the ties that bind our diverse nation together – that while multiculturalism had rightly urged Britain's different communities to cherish their heritage and indeed their difference, we needed to put equal energy into forging the connections between us all. The US seemed a good model to learn from, the place that had invented hyphenated identity – Irish-American, Italian-American and the like – but which placed equal emphasis on both sides of that hyphen.

The melting pot and the American dream are both cliches, but the notion that an immigrant of talent and energy can become fully American, integrating successfully and even rising to the very top, is central to the way the country sees itself. In 2005, I spoke to one Muslim-American leader who saw no reason why his community should ever feel alienated from the rest of their society.

The Tsarnaev brothers challenge that core part of America's defining story. They looked to be making the classic immigrant journey, the younger brother by all accounts a popular, accomplished young man – once a star on his high school wrestling team, recently enrolled as a medical student. His social media profile had him listing his priorities in quintessentially American terms: "career and money".

And yet, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a winner in the boxing ring, the traditional escape route for so many immigrants, once said, "I don't have a single American friend; I don't understand them." This will shake Americans, to discover that their country had somehow failed to work its usual seductive magic, transforming one-time outsiders into loyal citizens.

3. This could have a direct political impact, impeding Barack Obama's planned immigration reform. Every rational argument will say that millions of immigrants cannot be judged by the evil deeds of two. Yet politics is not always rational. Obama will need to work hard to resist the argument that the Tsarnaev brothers – if their responsibility for Monday's bombings is confirmed – prove that America needs to dispense the gift of citizenship less freely. Republicans who, chastened by defeat in the 2012 presidential election, were warming to a more open policy may be tempted to close the doors once more.

4. This is the first such attack in the age of Twitter and it has given rise to a new phenomenon: profiling by crowdsourcing. As soon as the names of the two suspects were released, the crowds were unleashed, seeking, if not wisdom, then at least information. Instantly, Twitter buzzed with details of what was purported to be the older suspect's YouTube account – including a playlist dedicated to "terrorism" – and even one brother's Amazon wishlist.

Perhaps this kind of collective, communal policing is a return to the days of the sheriff and his posse, but it's uncomfortable, especially for the police. At one point they had to urge the media to turn their cameras away and plead with the public not to tweet details of operations they had witnessed or picked up on the police scanner, audible online, lest they alert the wanted man. This is a new situation.

5. The established media are struggling too. On Wednesday, CNN repeatedly reported an arrest when there had been none, while Thursday's New York Post splashed the photos of two innocent men on its front page, implying they were suspects. The media still want to be first, but first can often be wrong.

As for the larger questions of motive and policy response, it's far too soon for any of that. We still know so little, except this: too many innocent people are dead and will never be coming back.

Twitter @j_freedland


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Margaret Thatcher’s funeral: ‘Lying here, she is one of us’

The ceremony that hushed central London was a farewell to Margaret Thatcher and also to the conflicted 1980s

For all the grandeur, they claimed a simple purpose. They had come, they said, not to bury a political figure or an "-ism", but a woman of flesh and blood, a mortal who was "one of us". And yet there were moments when it seemed they had come to bury an entire era, to conclude at last that dizzying, turbulent decade where she reigned supreme. The ceremony that hushed central London on Wednesday morning was a farewell to Margaret Thatcher but also to the 1980s.

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Margaret Thatcher’s funeral: ‘Lying here, she is one of us’

The ceremony that hushed central London was a farewell to Margaret Thatcher – and also to the conflicted 1980s

For all the grandeur, they claimed a simple purpose. They had come, they said, not to bury a political figure or an "-ism", but a woman of flesh and blood, a mortal who was "one of us". And yet there were moments when it seemed they had come to bury an entire era, to conclude at last that dizzying, turbulent decade where she reigned supreme. The ceremony that hushed central London on Wednesday morning was a farewell to Margaret Thatcher – but also to the 1980s.

The faces were those of that turbo-charged, go-go decade: older and greyer now, some with backs stooping as if weary of past battles, but still familiar to those who lived through them. Maurice Saatchi, he of the adman specs and the Labour Isn't Working poster. Michael Heseltine, onetime Tory superstar and eventual nemesis. The two Davids, Owen and Steel, entering St Paul's together and sitting side by side, conjoined as tightly as they were in their Spitting Image caricature, back when they were the twin faces of the SDP/Liberal Alliance.

All around were the men who were never off the TV news in the 1980s – and men it was, thanks to the Lady's reluctance to promote those she didn't call her sisters.

In one cluster: Norman Tebbit, Douglas Hurd and Tom King. Even the US contingent evoked memories of the Back to the Future era: George Schultz and James Baker joining Henry Kissinger and the relative newboy Dick Cheney. "We all bump into each other from time to time but perhaps not the whole gang," said Kissinger. The arts were represented by faces that would have not been out of place 30 years ago: Tim Rice and Shirley Bassey.

And crawling along the bottom of the screen, a device that would have seemed new-fangled back then but bearing a message that would nevertheless have been utterly familiar – the BBC News ticker announcing depressing job figures, confirming that 900,000 people have been without work for more than a year.

Burying the 1980s is not a straight- forward business, not in Britain where that decade occupies a similar space to that of the 1960s in the US: the period when our "culture wars" were at their most intense, the divisions raw and open. At the centre, governing every day of that decade — elected just before it and deposed just after it – was Margaret Thatcher. So what more fitting moment to draw a line under that vexed period and call a truce than at her funeral?

Except Thatcher was never in the truce business and, for all its elegance and piety, the ceremony in St Paul's was not either. It was rather an event which sought, however subtly, to declare victory in the titanic struggles of that era. Its message, tacit but unmistakable: "That time is over – and Thatcher won."

Of course, that message was not delivered in anything so crude as a political speech. This, avowedly, was not a memorial service that might have included politicians' eulogies. It was billed instead as a simple "Christian funeral," filled by hymns and readings, with only a bishop's sermon to speak of the dead.

But that is to ignore the wider spectacle of which the religious ceremony was just a part. Imagine, for example, what future generations will make of the archive footage they will see: the coffin draped in the union flag, borne slowly by gun carriage through a (mainly) hushed London; servicemen serving as pallbearers; the Queen standing in silent respect as a mourner; the cathedral flooding with sunlight as the doors opened for the coffin's exit; the crowds outside raising three cheers as they caught sight of it.

The Britons of the future will contemplate all this the way we look at pictures from the 1965 funeral of Winston Churchill now. They will surely assume that this was an uncomplicated tribute to a woman who had served as little short of a national saviour. If anything, the absence of conventional, political speeches reinforced that message, suggesting a woman whose achievement was beyond such pettiness. That was why an all but state funeral was always bound to be controversial, why some opposed granting such a rare, once-a-century honour to a former prime minister. For they knew, and feared, the power of such a ceremony – how it can transform and elevate a onetime partisan politician into something larger, a figure that towers above politics, apparently uniting a nation.

Once today's images have aged and yellowed into archive, that's the story they will seem to tell too. The boos along the funeral route were mainly off screen. Few will ever see the photographs of big screens relaying coverage of the funeral to empty city squares in Leeds and Edinburgh.

The funeral parties of former miners – a huge crowd in Goldthorpe burning a Thatcher effigy – will be consigned to a footnote. If they are remembered at all, they will be shown as the old "enemy within", to use Thatcher's own phrase, reduced to few in number and scattered to the four winds. The effect was a national pageant that declared those forces, who once seemed to represent half the country in a society split down the middle, utterly defeated.

Several commentators said Thatcher earned the special ceremony because she had been a war leader. But the Falklands conflict of 1982 was a mere skirmish compared to the war that sealed Churchill's claim on a state farewell. Thatcher's real war was the one she fought at home, defeating that "enemy within".

So complete was her victory in that struggle that three great institutions – occasionally at odds with each other during the Thatcher era – came together to stage a lavish spectacle. This was a production of the Church of England, the Conservative party and the BBC, executed with the precision and class we've come to expect. The hushed Dimbleby commentary, the soaring choral music, the gleaming military uniforms – it was as good as any royal occasion. The aim: to usher Thatcher into that tiny pantheon of figures deemed fit to stand alongside the monarchy in national esteem.

Except it was not just the Conservative party who masterminded this display, even if the period from Thatcher's death to her funeral has felt like an extended Tory campaign film. Credit – or blame – has to be shared with the Labour governments who laid the original plans.

It was Gordon Brown who floated the notion of a state funeral, in a pretty transparent attempt to curry favour with the Daily Mail and its allies. The result was a cross-party, state decision, by which Labour colluded with the secular beatification of the defining figure of modern Conservatism.

Still, the Tory party provided much of the cast list, and the BBC served up the gorgeous pictures, with the most important words left to the Church.

The sermon from the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, was well written and eloquently delivered and did its bit for the larger project, sanding down the rougher edges of the Thatcher profile, rendering it smooth enough to sit alongside Churchill, Wellington and the like.

He excused the view that still inflicts most damage on her reputation. "Her later remark about there being no such thing as 'society' has been misunderstood," he said.

And, in a neat play on one of her favourite catchphrases – one she deployed for divisive ends, separating friends from foes – he declared of Thatcher that "lying here, she is one of us", sharing the common destiny of all mortals. But no such normality was intended from this event. It aimed to make Thatcher anything but normal, to elevate her memory into a much higher category.

"We are all Thatcherites now," David Cameron had said a few hours before the procession. It was the most explicit statement to date of what the day – and the last week – has been about, even if the Telegraph scolded him for politicising an event that was meant, the paper said, to be non-political. In other words, he had given the game away. The Lady's authorised biographer, Charles Moore, was even more candid, telling Radio 5 Live: "Thatcher is reviled in parts of the country that are less important."

There was a little Twitter storm about that, but not much. Like the Munchkins campaign, or the placards on the funeral route, it felt a little half-hearted. The glory days of such protests are long gone, the era when hundreds of thousands would chant, "Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out!" a vanished part of our past.

There is no target so certain, so firm and Manichean to oppose any more, the politicians of today's age too middling, too consensual, too keen to be our friend for any of that.

Which means that Wednesday might not have been a day of mourning for the Tory tribe alone. Those who opposed her, those who came of age in the heat and clarity of that 1980s fight; perhaps they feel a strange loss too. Maggie is out for ever now, her era gone with her.


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A funeral designed to elevate Margaret Thatcher above politics

The aim was to usher Thatcher into that tiny pantheon of figures deemed fit to stand alongside the monarchy in national esteem

If it's true that Margaret Thatcher's name will be remembered long into the future, these will be among the pictures that will recall her memory. A coffin draped in the union flag, borne by gun carriage slowly through a (mainly) hushed London; servicemen serving as pallbearers; the Queen standing in silent respect as a mourner; the cathedral flooding with sunlight as the doors opened for the coffin's exit; the crowds outside raising three cheers as they caught sight of it.

And that's exactly what the planners of this magnificent spectacle wanted. For there will be no clue in such a montage of images that there was any controversy or doubt about such a send-off. On the contrary, future generations will gaze on this archive footage much the way we look at pictures from the 1965 funeral of Winston Churchill now: they will assume this was an uncomplicated tribute to a woman who had served as little short of a national saviour.

Which is why an all-but-state funeral was controversial, why some opposed granting such a rare, once-a-century honour to the former prime minister. For they knew, and feared, the power of such a ceremony – how it can transform and elevate a onetime partisan politician into something larger, a figure that towers above politics, apparently uniting a nation.

Once these images have aged and yellowed into archive, that's the story they will purport to tell. The boos reported as the funeral procession passed through Fleet Street were mainly off-screen. Not many will have seen the photograph of an audience of just two watching the big screen coverage of the funeral in an empty part of Leeds city centre. The funeral parties of former miners will be consigned to a footnote.

Instead, three great institutions – regularly at odds during the Thatcher era – came together to stage a lavish funeral pageant. This was a production of the Church of England, the Conservative party and the BBC, executed with the precision and class we've come to expect.

The hushed Dimbleby commentary, the soaring choral music, the gleaming military uniforms – it was as good as any royal occasion. The aim: to usher Thatcher into that tiny pantheon of figures deemed fit to stand alongside the monarchy in national esteem.

The BBC provided the gorgeous pictures, the Tory party much of the cast list – beefed up by an international contingent designed to make most leftists come out in a rash, including Dick Cheney, Henry Kissinger and Binyamin Netanyahu – with the most important words left to the Church.

The sermon from the bishop of London, Richard Chartres, was well-written and eloquently delivered and did its bit for the larger project, sanding down the rougher edges of the Thatcher profile, rendering it smooth enough to sit alongside Churchill, Wellington and the like.

Chartres excused the view which still inflicts most damage on her reputation. "Her later remark about there being no such thing as society has been misunderstood," he said. And, in a neat play on one of her favourite catchphrases – one she deployed for divisive ends, separating friends from foes – he declared that Thatcher was now "one of us", sharing the common destiny of all mortals.

No such normality was intended from this event. It aimed to make Thatcher anything but normal, to propel her memory into a much higher category. In this, her final journey, surely not many obstacles now stand in her way.


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Start the week

On Start the Week Jonathan Freedland journeys from the origin of life to the possibilities of new life-forms with the geneticist Adam Rutherford. Steve Jones updates the Bible from the point of view of modern science and Barbara Sahakian looks at our ability to make decisions, and whether ‘smart drugs’ should be used to boost our reactions. The artist Susan Aldworth is inspired by neuro-scientific imagery to explore the relationship between mind and body in her portraits of those with epilepsy and in doing so asks how this material corresponds or contrasts with the subject’s sense of self.

Posted in BBC

This lovefest for Margaret Thatcher spells trouble for David Cameron | Jonathan Freedland

The prime minister is damned if he's too much like her, and damned if he's not enough. Meanwhile Labour is left unruffled

Let's talk politics: it's what she'd have wanted. After a week filled with assessments of the grand, tectonic shifts of the Thatcher era, let's get down to the grubbier, more immediate realities of the game she played so well. What will be the political fallout of this tribute week, which consisted not only of eulogy and reflection, but also grandstanding and positioning? And, though some will consider it unseemly to say out loud, who stands to benefit and who to lose?

At first glance, this should be the Conservatives' moment, the airwaves and front pages devoted to their most successful postwar leader, recalling the party's glory days, listing its great achievements. On this measure, the period from last Monday until the funeral next Wednesday will be a 10-day, rolling party political broadcast on behalf of the Conservative party and its Thatcher-style "stay the course in tough times" message. With local elections not much more than three weeks away, this surely will be a boon – Margaret Thatcher's final act of service for the party that loved her.

Except, one suspects, it is not the wider electorate that's been preying on David Cameron's mind. His focus has seemed narrower and more defensive. Note his haste in tearing up a plan Downing Street had reviewed and agreed to more than once, including very recently, which said that if Thatcher died during a parliamentary recess, MPs would wait until their first day back to pay tribute. In the event, Cameron surprised the Speaker and, it is said, his own chief whip by insisting on a recall of parliament, a measure previously reserved for moments of national emergency.

Plenty in Westminster read that as an act not of confidence but of nervousness on Cameron's part, as if the prime minister feared the fury of the Mail, Telegraph and the Thatcher-worshipping Tory backbenches if he did not lay on every possible honour – and in double-quick time. Rather than give his tormentors any chance to criticise him for insufficient grief, he has chosen the maximal option at each turn. Recall parliament or wait as planned? Recall. Forty five minutes of Commons tributes, as granted to Churchill, or the full seven and a half hours? The latter, please. A civilian funeral, or one with all the military, quasi-regal bells and whistles? The biggest we can get away with.

In this way, Cameron has seized upon Thatcher's passing as a chance to do himself some good, or at least avoid trouble, with the Tory right wing. Giving the warrior queen the works has proved an easy, cost-free way to throw some red meat in their direction. Short of a British veto in Brussels, there's nothing they'd want more.

But it may not do Cameron much good. For he has invited a comparison which is not necessarily flattering. All these tributes to Thatcher's strength and resolve include an unspoken contrast with him. And not always unspoken. Witness the less-than-loyal tribute from Conor Burns, a Tory backbencher who recalled a cab driver declaring: "We haven't had a good 'un in No 10 since Mrs T" – an assessment that Burns said was shared by Thatcher herself.

Tories like winners – and they fear Cameron is not one. That's why every reminder of the Lady's three election victories stings the prime minister, who has won none. He won't have liked Lord Ashcroft noting that this week marked the anniversary of the last Tory victory, a full 21 years ago.

Tories miss Thatcher's particular ability to appeal to the lower-income, aspirational voter who so often decides British elections: Essex Man, in her day. Tony Blair had some of that magic touch too. But Cameron does not. It's not through lack of trying. He's made several attempts to connect with what polls say are that demographic's concerns, most recently with speeches on immigration or welfare designed to look tough. He faithfully follows the script written for him by the hard-boiled campaign consultant Lynton Crosby. But it doesn't budge the numbers.

Worse still, breathing down his neck is a politician who, while Cameron once cast himself as heir to Blair, has always wanted to play heir to Thatcher. Ukip's Nigel Farage concluded his "Common Sense Tour" on Friday , appealing to that same seam of patriotic, working class Toryism once mined so effectively by Thatcher. All these reminders of the former PM as an outsider who ran as a populist insurgent (sometimes even against her own government) are welcome for Farage. Facing a coalition government headed by an Etonian, he can make a decent claim that today an anti-establishment revolutionary like Margaret Thatcher would feel more at home in Ukip than in the Conservative party.

Not that Cameron should rush to wrench the Thatcher mantle back for himself. Alastair Campbell recalled the 2001 campaign in which Labour sunk William Hague by giving him Thatcher's hair-do, suggesting her brand was still radioactive enough to repel voters. This is the other danger for Cameron. That by reawakening memories of the Thatcher past he is recontaminating the brand he worked so hard to detoxify.

Labour is hoping that the lovefest for their onetime nemesis will leave no lasting damage, that the issue will fade come polling day on 2 May. Ed Miliband won plaudits for navigating skilfully through what could have been perilous waters, his gracious Commons tribute acclaimed. So many Tory MPs came up to praise him afterwards that Miliband aides joke they'll soon write to the chairman of the 1922 Committee announcing they have the 45 signatures needed to trigger a Tory leadership challenge.

Some worry that Miliband's speech included no rebuke to Thatcherism on the frontal matter of the economy, choosing instead to fault the former PM on the less central issues of apartheid and Section 28. The leader shrugs that off, confident that no one can be in any doubt of his determination to push back the post-Thatcher settlement. Nor does the Labour high command share the anxiety expressed by Tony Blair this week, that today's Labour might be making the 1980s mistake of voicing public unease at government spending cuts without offering an alternative programme. They are confident that these are different times.

It is a curious thing. The resurgence of Thatcher in the public imagination, driven and amplified by a Conservative-led government, has left Labour relatively unruffled. David Cameron is the one discomfited, damned if he is too much like her, damned if he does not resemble her enough. Not for the first time, the departure of Thatcher has caused the greatest trouble for her own party.

Twitter: @j_freedland


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Margaret Thatcher debate mixes discord amid the tributes

As parliament pays respects, revelations emerge that Speaker originally rejected recall of MPs and Foreign Office caused anger by issuing funeral dress code

David Cameron and Ed Miliband battled to ward off a growing risk that Lady Thatcher's death will polarise, and even damage, the nation by both paying generous tribute on Wednesday to her belief in political ideas and her understanding that the British economy of the 1970s needed to change.

In a deft and hazardous speech at the start of an extraordinary seven hours of often gushing praise and affectionate anecdote, Miliband managed to show his respect for her leadership, including over the Falklands, climate change and the Soviet Union, and yet frankly set out his manifold disagreements over policy and values, pointing out that many communities were left feeling angry and abandoned by her premiership.

David Cameron, faced by a section on his own backbenches still hankering after her conviction politics, lauded the way she rejected the pessimism that he said was gripping the country in the 70s. "She had rescued the country from postwar decline," he said.

But he was carefully bipartisan, not solely blaming the Wilson and Callaghan governments for this defeatism, but instead asserting: "Successive governments had failed to deal with what was beginning to be called the British disease: appalling industrial relations, poor productivity and persistently high inflation.

"They say that cometh the hour, cometh the man. Well, in 1979 came the hour, and came the lady. She made the political weather. She made history. And let this be her epitaph: she made our country great again."

Barely 100 out of the 256 Labour MPs attended the day of praise, and some, notably Glenda Jackson, broke with the tone set by Miliband accusing Thatcherism of wreaking over a decade "the most heinous, social, economic and spiritual damage upon this country, upon my constituency and my constituents".

Thatcherism, she said, transformed into virtues "the vices of greed, selfishness, no care for the weaker, sharp elbows, sharp knees". She added: "The first prime minister of female gender, OK. But a woman? Not on my terms." Her remarks drew Tory protests and demands that the Speaker rule her remarks out of order.

Many Labour MPs remain furious that her death is being turned into a near state military funeral when other prime ministers, apart from Winston Churchill, were not afforded such pomp and ceremony. Labour figures that stayed away from parliament included Lord Kinnock, Lord Hattersley and Gordon Brown. It was notable that younger Labour MPs with northern constituencies absented themselves.

It also emerged that staging a day of tributes before the funeral and requiring an expensive recall of parliament was the idea of the prime minister and involved him in a lengthy wrangle with the Speaker's Office. John Bercow felt there was no need to recall parliament, and was taken aback by the request. His office thought the tributes could be paid next Monday in line with precedent for previous deaths of party leaders.

At one point, Cameron had to enlist the support of Miliband to overcome the opposition, and Labour sources said they felt faced with a fait accompli and did not want to risk being seen as failing to show Thatcher due respect. In a measure of the significance of the occasion for Cameron, after speaking in the Commons he went to the bar of the Lords to listen to some of the 5½ hours of speeches from a string of senior civil servants and former Conservative cabinet ministers, including Lord Waldegrave, Lord Forsyth and Lord Lamont.

In a further sign of the tensions over the extent to which a party political death may be recast as a state occasion, diplomats were left enraged and confused after receiving instructions that they must wear mourning clothes for Thatcher's funeral, even though it is not a state occasion.

A memo sent to embassies and hundreds of Whitehall staff told men to wear black ties and women to wear dark clothes next Wednesday – instructions usually reserved for the death of a head of state.

The Foreign Office confirmed the instructions had been issued on Tuesday night but said they were a mistake, adding that they would be withdrawn by Wednesday night.

Sources said the Foreign Office received complaints "from the highest level" of the civil service.

The memo read "Wednesday 17th will be a day of mourning. All staff are to wear mourning dress... Men are to wear dark suits and a black tie. Women should wear dark colours," the memo added.

In the Commons, Cameron had opened the day of praise saying: "Her political story was one of a perpetual battle, in the country, in this place and sometimes even in her own cabinet.

"She believed to the core of her being that Britain stood for something in the world: for democracy, for the rule of law, for right over might. She loathed communism and believed in the invincible power of the human spirit to resist and ultimately defeat tyranny. She never forgot that Warsaw, Prague and Budapest were great European cities, capitals of free nations temporarily trapped behind the iron curtain>

"She certainly did not shy from the fight and that led to arguments, to conflict and, yes, even to division, but what is remarkable, looking back now, is how many of those arguments are no longer arguments at all. No one wants to return to strikes without a ballot. No one believes that large industrial companies should be owned by the state. The nuclear deterrent, Nato and the special relationship are widely accepted as the cornerstones of our security and defence policies.

"So many of the principles that Lady Thatcher fought for are now part of the accepted political landscape of our country," he said.

Miliband drew praise from Tory MPs and rightwing commentators for a speech that navigated the rapids of describing a figure of such notoriety on the left so soon after death.

He admitted he came of age at a time when people defined their politics by being for or against what she was doing.

He praised her saying "she was right to understand the sense of aspiration felt by people across the country, and she was right to recognise that our economy needed to change. She said in 1982: 'How absurd it will seem in a few years' time that the state ran Pickfords removals and the Gleneagles hotel.' She was right.

"In foreign policy, she was right to defend the Falklands and bravely reach out to new leadership in the Soviet Union, and something often forgotten is that she was the first political leader in any major country to warn of the dangers of climate change, long before anyone thought of hugging a husky."

But he added: "It would be dishonest and not in keeping with the principles that Margaret Thatcher stood for not to be open with the House, even on this day, about the strong opinions and deep divisions there were, and are, over what she did.

"In mining areas, such as the one I represent, communities felt angry and abandoned. Gay and lesbian people felt stigmatised by measures such as section 28, which today's Conservative party has rightly repudiated".


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