Thatcher, Sunak and supermarket politics
There it is not a museum to Margaret Thatcher. There is no need for one, as there is a Sainsbury’s supermarket on the high street in Finchley, her former constituency. She opened on March 16, 1987, inspecting the sausages, touching the cans at the tiller and delivering a sermon to her employees. “The market economy is not some theory – it is, in fact, that men and women will be able to spend their own earnings where they like, in shops like this.”
The supermarket is the best way to understand Thatcher and her belief. Her father was a greengrocer. As a young Tory candidate, she preached fiscal discipline like a housewife managing the shopping budget. When she was setting out an agenda for privatization as opposition leader, she often compared the sharp competition between Tesco and Sainsbury’s to sluggish state-owned businesses. In the cold war the supermarket meant freedom itself: to know the difference between our systems, she would say, compare the sparse stores of Moscow and the abundance of Asda.
Thatcher’s pocketbook politics have been out of fashion for a while. Brexit, the pandemic and internal parties brought out more concerns such as the price of sausages. As a result of Boris Johnson’s victory in 2019, Tory intellectuals declared that culture had influenced economics. “It’s not the economy, stupid”, ran one headline. The economy had other ideas. The supermarket is once again at the heart of British politics. This is the site of Rishi Sunak’s greatest achievement and headache. What happens at the tables will determine his main place.
Politicians like supermarkets in part because their store card data and consumer panels produce a more educated picture of the electorate than anything political parties can. to draw “They would always come to me first at the beginning of the meeting and say ‘What’s going on out there?'” says Justin King, fomer CEO of Sainsbury’s and a member of David Cameron’s business council.
What’s going on out there is brutal. In the year before Mr Cameron’s stunning victory in 2015, food prices fell steadily as discounts entered the market. Now, everything has changed. Food prices rose 17% in the year to January, as war in Ukraine drove up the cost of grain, energy and cooking oil. Consumers tend to change their habits when inflation hits 4%, says Fraser McKevitt of Kantar, a consultancy, moving from big brands to own labels and from flexible lines to budget products. A price war is going on. Ocado, a smart online grocer, promises to match Tesco’s prices; Tesco and Sainsbury’s pledge to match that of discounter Aldi.
Mr. Sunak is aware of the risks. He has prioritized halving inflation by the end of the year. (Unlike Liz Truss, he correctly remembers Thatcherism as a project to curb inflation first and cut taxes second.) He is likely to succeed in that goal, but his pursuit poor politics: there’s not much to do but sit tight and not spend. money He will not be thanked at all. Out of 36 countries surveyed by pollster Ipsos, British voters are the most likely to blame their government for inflation. History shows that there is definite economic potential in general elections, and once a party loses its lead in this area, as the Tories did under Mrs Truss, it takes years to recover. back. The feedback from the government focus groups is grim: participants go around the table comparing the price of cheese and milk.
Scruffy Finchley’s store bears witness to the tough times. The corridors are decorated with banners: “MORE PRIORITY”; “Special Offers”; “£2 AND UNDER”. There are large gaps where the celery and tomatoes should be. The return of inflation would disgust Thatcher. But what would worry her more is that parts of her party seem to see supermarkets differently now. She saw the beauty of clockwork in the supply chain: there is a note in her archives in which she highlighted how one store had changed its truck axles to increase load capacity. She asked Roy Griffiths, director of Sainsbury’s, to fix the management of the National Health Service.
But a wing of the Tory party that calls itself Thatcherite has treated the just-time distribution network of the supermarkets like a baby with a hammer treats a wristwatch. Brexit has been painful for an industry whose business model was built around seamless borders, the free movement of hackers and fluid workers. It will get worse if and when full import controls are put in place next year.
Suspicion seems to have replaced appreciation. This month Andrew Davies, the leader of the Welsh Tories, mocked an opponent who bemoaned the lack of green as a “metropolitan liberal”; the effect of the 1980s was to bring metropolitan flavors to regional tables. Ministers have responded to the shortage of fresh vegetables, which is largely due to high energy costs, by calling out retailers for criticism. In response, some retailers refuse to share their shortage data. “There is a real lack of respect for the depth of this complexity [industry] included,” said one supermarket boss.
It’s in the aisles
It often seems that the more the Conservative Party imitates Thatcher, the less she is remembered. It is easy to imitate the beauty of conflict and chaos. Strategic patience and love of the customer are often overlooked. It seems that Mr. Sunak, at least, gets this and it is in the supermarket that his greatest achievement is found. At the heart of his reformed contract with the Board EU in Northern Ireland is a customs solution for supermarkets, an attempt to reconcile the constitutional revolution of Brexit with the simple desire of people in Belfast to buy shepherd’s pie and microwavable lasagne as easily as a Blackpool resident. The prime minister’s understanding of the technical issues has had an effect on the heads of supermarkets. “He was the first person to put it in detail in reality,” said one. That is far from a guarantee of political success. But in dire times it is a necessary starting point. ■