Margaret Thatcher was my political inspiration. I only wish that I had been here in Parliament when she was Prime Minister, as it would have been a rare treat indeed to be on these Benches and able to support a Government with whom I agreed from time to time.
My earliest political memory was of the Falklands war of 1982. I was 10 years old and remember coming home from school to see what was going on over in the Falklands. It was during that crisis that I built up my admiration for Margaret Thatcher. I was born in Doncaster and was brought up in Doncaster North, the constituency of the Leader of the Opposition. As he made clear, it was a strong mining community. My father was involved with the local Conservative party—there are not many Conservatives in Doncaster—and as soon as I was old enough to deliver leaflets and knock on doors, my father had me out delivering leaflets and knocking on doors. I loved elections—we never used to win any, but I still loved them.
People have often said to me that it must have been incredibly difficult going around mining communities in the mid to late-1980s supporting Margaret Thatcher and a Conservative Government. It was not difficult at all. I believed in Margaret Thatcher to my core, and when we believed in somebody in the way I believed in Margaret Thatcher it was not difficult to go knocking on doors to support the great things she did for this country. It was not Margaret Thatcher who ruined those mining communities; it was Arthur Scargill who ruined them—and let no one forget that.
Margaret Thatcher was a conviction politician. She believed that politics was all about trying to persuade people of what she believed in rather than just telling people what she thought they wanted to hear. That is the kind of politics that I believe in. She did not need focus groups or opinion polls to tell her what to believe. She was instinctively in tune with the British public.
I remember from when I was working at Asda that the best retailers were the ones who instinctively knew what the customers wanted without having to go to a focus group to ask. The worst chief executives of retailers were the ones who always had to be told what the focus groups were telling them and what the opinion polls were telling them. For me, it is exactly the same with political leaders. The best political leaders such as Margaret Thatcher instinctively know what the public want and where they are—they do not need opinion polls—and the worst political leaders are those who have to rely on those polls because they know no better themselves.
Too often, politicians in this country try to be popular. My advice would be, “If you want to be popular, don’t be a politician” because of the inevitable consequence that they will become unpopular. Popularity in politics will always be a temporary thing. One thing that can last for ever in politics, however, is respect. Even if not popular, a politician can still be respected, and Margaret Thatcher was one of those politicians. She was a Marmite politician: people either loved her or hated her, but she was universally respected, even among her political foes, because she knew what she believed in, she stood up for it and she delivered it to people. Whether people agreed with her or not, they trusted in her as a politician because she was doing what she thought was genuinely the right thing to do. We need more politicians like that.
Margaret Thatcher won three general elections on the trot, and the best way to sum up her achievement is to recognise that more people voted Conservative in her third general election than they had done the first time she won in 1979. That is a remarkable achievement showing how she built support over those eight years. Tony Blair, on the other hand, won three general elections but lost 4 million voters between the last and the first election. That goes to show the difference in calibre between those two politicians who might otherwise be closely compared.
Margaret Thatcher was voted out by her own party. This occasion gives me the opportunity to put on record my utter contempt for those in our party—people who were not fit to lick her boots—who ousted her in 1990. That did an awful lot of damage—but not just to the country, as it did long-term damage to the Conservative party as well.
Anyone wanting to sum up Mrs Thatcher should look at her final performance from the Dispatch Box as Prime Minister. It was one of the finest performances that has ever been seen in Parliament. I am delighted that Simon Hughes was in his place to speak today. He will remember, probably quite painfully, how she wiped the floor with him when he intervened—[Interruption.] I think it was Michael Carttiss who said from the Conservative Benches that she could wipe the floor with the lot of them, and that was absolutely true—she could. During that debate, I wonder how many Conservative Members wondered, “Oh, Lord, what have we done?” They got rid of the greatest Prime Minister this country has ever seen. There will never be another like her. It is a privilege to speak in this debate and to hear some of the great stories that help us to find the true Margaret Thatcher—one I will for ever admire.