HER powers were, admittedly, waning. On March 9, 1990, Margaret Thatcher had only nine months left in her as leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

The House of Commons tearooms were growing full of edged whispers. Contenders and would-be successors were on manoeuvres. But like Theresa May this week, despite the electoral setbacks and hostility both women endured from the overwhelming majority of the Scottish electorate, in March 1990, Mrs Thatcher remained determined to make the case for Thatcherism in a cold climate.

Briefing the PM before a major BBC Scotland interview, Malcolm Rifkind was anxious. Mrs Thatcher had a verbal tick. When she spoke about this country at all, she was inclined to say “you in Scotland do this, you in Scotland do that”.

“It sounds as if you’re visiting another country,” Rifkind encouraged her. “You are Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Try not to use that phrase.” In the combative interview with a young Kirsty Wark which followed, Mrs Thatcher took her Secretary of State for Scotland’s advice – but memorably mangled the delivery.

Instead of the old line about “you in Scotland”, time and again Mrs Thatcher invoked “we in Scotland”, “us in Scotland”, referring lumpily to her English heartland as “the people further south”. As the interrogation continued, and Thatcher’s oddball “we in Scotland” moments mounted up, her Scottish Tory colleagues were left with their heads in their hands behind the cameras. She’d never have this difficulty in Finchley.

The interview only underscored the awkwardness Rifkind had hoped to smooth out. “God, this extraordinary woman, who was so brilliant in many ways,” he reflected, “she understood the problem – but the solution was infinitely worse.”

Mrs Thatcher’s lack of lyricism – her stammering struggle to find a living, natural vocabulary within which to express her Unionism – has been a catching fault. Since Theresa May was driven from office, and the clown car of the Tory leadership election trundled into motion with its painted cast of unfunny jesters, earnest gagmen, unsmiling harlequins and dangerous fools, none of the serious contenders to replace Theresa May have found the eloquence Mrs Thatcher so palpably lacked.

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When it comes to “our precious Union”, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are just going through the motions. The marks? This week, the membership of the Scottish Tories who – by some reckonings – make up as much as 20% of the electorate will help choose the next prime minister. And like all ideal marks, the Scottish Tory membership show every sign of wanting to be deceived by the two confidence-tricksters in contention.

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Now and then, every effective politician has to pander to their audience. You don’t carry constituency selection meetings by telling the punters you think they’re barmy. You don’t carry leadership elections by telling your base you don’t give a flying fig about their political priorities. So pandering it must be.

Listening to the gruesome twosome talk about “our precious Union’s” place in their political hearts this week, I’m reminded of those wedding speeches where the father of the bride thinks his new son-in-law is a twerp, or the manager’s stilted remarks at the retirement party of a longstanding but incompetent employee, or of those funerals where the character in the coffin is the kind of soul about whom little good can honestly be said.

British politeness being what it is, you don’t want to tell the truth, and you don’t want to disappoint the guests and mourners who’ve come expecting a happy union, a fond farewell or a cheerio and thanks for all the fish. So the speakers tug on their noses, rehearse the conventional forms and say what they think they ought to say. Everyone departs content. Nobody is tasteless enough to point out that they didn’t really mean a word of it.

Boris Johnson does the bare minimum. Hunt, by contrast, seems unable to talk about the Union without visions of being gruesomely martyred on its behalf, pledging this week to fight for the Union with “every drop of blood in my veins” and to “defend the Union with every drop of blood I have”. Who talks like this?

I don’t know what’s giving Jeremy these pre-sentiments of being crucified on Carlisle wall, but extolling the virtues of blood-sacrifice seems a curious way to de-escalate and reconcile the many internal tensions which gnaw at the United Kingdom.

The National:

You could be forgiven for ignoring what Theresa May had to say about the Union in her speech in Stirling this week. The thoughts and reflections of yesterday’s woman, who had her shot and fluffed it, may seem of no interest to anyone beyond her own sorrowful self. But bracket your suspicion or indifference. Examine instead Mrs May’s efforts as an earnest attempt to say something, to think concretely, about this “precious Union”.

In one passage, she admits it is “sometimes hard to articulate the core tenets” of the “alchemy inherent in our Union”. Mrs May’s speech doesn’t turn base political metal into gold. Even on its own political terms, this swansong represents a collection of obvious contradictions.

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On the one hand, she concedes Brexit represents “a profound constitutional change that is putting political and administrative strains on the Union”. And yet, in the next breath, she asserts that “as we look to the future, and the questions it will ask of us, we can take confidence that our Union is built on rock-solid foundations”. But she says “safeguarding the Union for the long-term will take work”. So which is it? Is the Union a house built on rock or sand?

She maintains that retrenching the Union “does not lie in further constitutional change – or in reimagining what the Union should be”, but lies instead in “being more creative and energetic in strengthening the ties that bind us and reinforcing the glue that holds our Union together”. Havers. Good luck creatively unimagining some more familiar glue. And anyway, didn’t she characterise Brexit, a few breaths ago, as “profound constitutional change”? If Brexit, as she maintains, is unavoidable, how can the constitutional change it entails be avoided?

Inevitably, she also produces the onion. Enter, grey-faced and unsmiling, the emotional case for the Union. There can be few things more terrifying than the demand from apparently unemotional people for an emotional case to be made. And here leaden Theresa is. “The happiness of someone in Belfast is the care and concern of someone in Bolton or Brecon or Bridge of Allan,” she said. This from a Prime Minister who has shown herself to be mercilessly indifferent to the wellbeing and welfare of people from every corner of this country. And who, on this logic, is presumably happy to declare herself indifferent to the happiness of someone in Barcelona, or Berlin, or Brussels. It’s saccharine. It’s vacuous. It’s self-deceiving.

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Other sections of the address are simply bizarre. Setting out to demonstrate the Union “is not just a constitutional artefact, not just a marketplace for goods”, she gives the military, diplomatic service and MI5 and 6 as the first symbols of the British people’s collective endeavours. Who thinks like this? To whom does she imagine she is pandering? Does any serious person believe that James Bond is the banner around which anyone in this country rallies? That spooks, soldiers and consuls are the icons Britain needs? The personnel who’ll persuade Scots to stay?

As the playwright Peter Arnott put it last week, “just as Nietzsche discovered with God in the 1880s, so the British people will discover in the 2020s that the Union is already dead in the hearts of our contemporaries”. Nearly three decades ago, Mrs Thatcher struggled to find the right words. This week was May, Hunt and Johnson’s “we in Scotland” moment.