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Theresa May was an 18-year-old undergraduate at St Hugh’s College, Oxford when Margaret Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative Party in February 1975. She had not yet left the slight mark on Oxford student politics that she would before going down from the university. Much like Mrs Thatcher at the same place 30 years previously, she was a relatively impecunious, provincial girl with no very obvious glittering prospects. And yet, according to a female friend who knew her, when she heard that a woman had for the first time been chosen to lead the Tories, Theresa May’s reaction was one of irritation. “I wanted to be first and she got there first,” she is quoted as saying.

 
ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL DALEY

It takes a lot of chutzpah, and possibly a touch of madness, for a young person ungroomed for greatness to respond in such terms. Doubtless there are other women now aged 60 who, having expressed lofty political ambitions in 1975, got nowhere. For all that, I like this anecdote in Rosa Prince’s superlative new biography, Theresa May: The Enigmatic Prime Minister (Biteback, £20), because it connects May to Thatcher at an early age, and invites us to ponder the many arresting similarities, as well some notable differences, between our two female Tory prime ministers.

Both became leaders of their party at a time of crisis. In Thatcher’s case, inflation was running at more than 20 per cent, the economy was sclerotic and the unions rampant. In May’s case, a fractured country faces arduous negotiations and an inevitably uncertain future outside the European Union. There is a danger that the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, will succeed in turning Brexit into a grievance, and prise Scotland away from the United Kingdom. Terrorism is a shared threat — the Provisional IRA for Thatcher, and the Islamic variety in the case of Theresa May, as the recent outrage perpetrated by the British-born Khalid Masood in Westminster attests. This was the biggest crisis so far of her prime ministership. Despite these serious challenges, Mrs May appears mistress of all she surveys, facing as she does a hopelessly-led Opposition, and having for the moment seen off the Remainers in the Commons and the Lords. But I am sure she is aware of the magnitude of the task that lies before her.

On the whole, Thatcher succeeded as Prime Minister between 1979 and 1990 in salvaging Britain, albeit at a considerable social cost. Can Theresa May slay her arguably even more fearsome dragons? And what kind of country will she leave behind once — if — Brexit is successfully accomplished?

The enormity of the respective challenges of the two women is only the start of it. Reading Prince’s book, one is continually struck by similarities of background and experience. As the grammar school and Oxford-educated Margaret Thatcher slowly clambered up the greasy pole, she demonstrated a capacity for hard work and assiduousness that has also been noted in the grammar school and Oxford-educated Theresa May. Neither woman was steeped in a knowledge of history or especially well read, the one having studied chemistry, the other geography, and both were considered more practical than intellectual before becoming leaders. Nor, during their competent ministerial careers, were they often thought of as future prime ministers, save by themselves and possibly their husbands. Against most people’s expectations, they suddenly emerged holding the golden prize, declaring themselves to be at odds with political views they had previously espoused.

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amcdonald
April 3rd, 2017
10:04 PM
George `Tampon Tax` Osborne claims the tax will raise £15 million to fund women`s organisations. £250,000 is going to the anti-abortion propaganda organisation Life. It`s deeply shameful and a disgrace. Osborne could pay the £15 million himself. Who in the Tory Party thinks it`s a great idea to tax the periods of girls and women ? Perhaps Theresa May could answer Suzanne Moore at the Guardian. Osborne is now also editor of a London junk mail freebie. It was his cocaine addicted banker friends in the City that caused the crash/robbery. He shares in their delusions of adequacy. The Brexit liberation needs no Osbornes in the Tory Party.

Arnie Ward
April 3rd, 2017
11:04 AM
In the opening paragraph Glover could have replaced the phrase "before going down from university" with a single word understood everywhere, "graduating". Such a quaint and anachronistic turn of phrase.

amcdonald
March 30th, 2017
4:03 PM
Theresa May is indeed mistress of all she surveys. Thanks to 17.4 million Brexiteers she`s now Prime Minister. The Remnants will never forgive us for destroying their illusion that they are the progressives and rebels. They are historical junk merchants. It doesn`t matter if Theresa May voted Remain. She`s now sincerely enacting the will of the people as Prime Minister. She should replace student nurse loans with grants. She should initiate a council house building project. She should fund Womens Refuges. Materialist solutions. At present which political party is even capable of delivering a pizza ? The glorious, chaotic dawn and magnificent Brexit victory was a civil war without muskets. No one at the BBC will say so. The artist Anish Kapoor is heartbroken in his Remainia. But it`s him and his set who are the small minds, small hearts (the Art Newspaper). The Ponces (as Julie Burchill has it). It`s entirely up to Theresa May and her team to prove the Tory Party can be other than `the Nasty Party`. She`s up for it and will probably get my vote in a General Election.

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