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Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, July 14, 2006.

Jason Ransom/PMO

Politics Insider delivers premium analysis and access to Canada's policymakers and politicians. Visit the Politics Insider homepage for insight available only to subscribers.

In July 2006, rookie Prime Minister Stephen Harper flew to Europe for his first G8 summit, and made one mistake after another.

Mr. Harper backed Israel's incursion into Lebanon so enthusiastically that he put himself offside with other G8 leaders. He diverted his government jet to Cyprus to retrieve Canadian refugees from that stricken country, and then twiddled his thumbs for hours on a tarmac waiting for someone in need of rescuing to arrive.

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But the highlight of the trip for the new prime minister was a private meeting with Margaret Thatcher in London. Afterward, his young aides burbled with enthusiasm over the encounter. Mr. Harper was similarly excited.

"It was an experience I'll never forget," he recalled Monday at a hockey awards ceremony. She was, he said, a leader who would be remembered "for centuries to come."

She was also a mentor. Margaret Thatcher was the inspiration for modern Canadian conservatism, an almost spiritual force. Far more than Ronald Reagan, she shaped the values and policies of the Canadian right.

Prior to Margaret Thatcher's arrival on the world stage, Canadian conservatism was dominated by its Red Tory strain. Red Tories advocated a market-based economy tempered by social compassion. If it was at all different from liberalism – and it was often hard to detect that difference – Red Toryism was rooted more in historical obligations of the ruling class toward the working class, rather than the liberal commitment to social progress.

Although he never thought of himself as one, Brian Mulroney was the last Red Tory prime minister, protecting and expanding social programs while running chronic deficits and hiking taxes. Margaret Thatcher was not impressed. She once recalled: "As leader of the Progressive Conservatives I thought [Mr. Mulroney] put too much emphasis on the adjective and not enough on the noun."

Mr. Mulroney's promotion of free trade with the United States and his decision to sell off major crown corporations pointed his party in a more overtly conservative direction. But it was not enough. A new generation championed a more explicitly Thatcherite conservatism. Governments should cut taxes, balance the budget, slash government spending, deregulate the economy, curb the power of unions and adopt a more robust, even confrontational, foreign policy.

The young Stephen Harper was a true disciple of Thatcherism. He abandoned the Progressive Conservatives for the Reform Party, then distanced himself from that prairie populist movement as well. Why? Because Thatcherism wasn't populist and it wasn't socially conservative.

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This is crucial: While Ms. Thatcher championed the family, she never embraced the strain of Christian conservatism that grew out of the Reagan revolution in the United States.

Stephen Harper similarly recognized that a Canadian conservative party willing to wage a culture war over "God, guns and gays," as it was called south of the border, would have little purchase among the millions of social moderates in Canada.

The new Conservative Party that he forged made its peace with gay marriage, went no further on gun rights than abolishing the long-gun registry, and steered clear of the abortion issue. In a sense, the current dispute between the Prime Minister and some of his MPs who are determined to raise the subject of abortion reflects his determination to keep the Conservative Party of Canada Thatcherite, in the face of those who would make it more populist, Christian and American.

Of course, Stephen Harper is no Margaret Thatcher. On his watch, tax cuts have been modest; federal spending went up before it went down; red tape has been trimmed more than slashed.

But the direction is clear. Harperism is incremental Thatcherism. If it feels less radical than the original, that's only because by the time the Conservatives came to power much of the Thatcher agenda had already been implemented, some of it by the Liberals.

In that sense, we're all Thatcherites now. But it seemed pretty clear nonetheless that Stephen Harper's meeting with the Iron Lady was the highlight of his 2006 trip. He was meeting a personal hero.

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John Ibbitson is the chief political writer in Ottawa.

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