Theresa May: the new Mrs Thatcher?

Unless you have been under a rock for the last six months, you will have noticed we have a new, female, prime minister in the form of Theresa May. This has prompted comparison with the only previous, female prime minister and Conservative Party leader, the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher.  But are they really so closely related?

The Daily Telegraph started the ball rolling in July by reporting that “the Tory Party may have found another Iron Lady in Theresa May”. This was echoed in a YouGov poll showing only three percentage points’ difference in support for Theresa May and Margaret Thatcher at the start of their premiership.

Veteran Tory MP and former cabinet minister Kenneth Clarke was heard complaining about Theresa May in a private meeting earlier this year. When voicing criticism of the new prime minister, he felt obliged to compare her to her illustrious female predecessor. You are a ‘bloody difficult woman’, Clarke is reported to have said, adding ‘and you and I both worked for Mrs Thatcher,’ i.e. we both know what ‘bloody difficult’ really means.

Theresa May and Margaret Thatcher certainly share one trait – a capacity for dividing public opinion. As Margaret Thatcher was ruthless in the introduction of austerity measures, so Theresa May has this month approved plans for a further cap on benefits, with some families losing up to £6000 a year. Both of Mrs M and Mrs T are now known for cuts in public spending.

But there is clear blue water between them on the question of women and their place in society. Theresa May set up the initiative Women2Win, and she has appointed seven female members to her first cabinet. By contrast, Margaret Thatcher was keen “not just to pull up the ladder after her, but [also to] thump on the head any woman who tried to scramble on up”, according to Guardian journalist Hadley Freeman. The Iron Lady might have disputed Freeman’s claim, but when Mrs T declared ‘there is no such thing as society’ she surely meant for most women to spend most of their time with their families.

Maybe it’s all a bit juvenile to be comparing female leaders of the country, just because they are female. Plus it’s really too early tell whether May will go down in history as “Thatcher 2.0”. But judging by her early days, it could easily end up that way.