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The new Prime Minister and the Iron Lady: Mrs May and Mrs Thatcher (Left:©Matt Dunham AP/PA Images. Right: ©Bettmann/Getty Images)


Theresa May and I are what we are because of Margaret Thatcher. For us both, the 1980s were our formative years, after grammar school and Oxford in the late 1970s. In my case, I saw just enough of Eton (where I was allowed to sit in on a few Oxbridge history classes) to become aware of how much some of my public school contemporaries looked down on grammar school boys and girls. Though our politics were very different in those days, our views have largely converged in the meantime. She seems to have already been blessed with a confidence I could then only dream of, and which has carried her all the way to Downing Street.

Yet there has been a concerted attempt to define Mrs May and her government in contrast to the Iron Lady. The same attempt has been made with almost every Tory leader since 1990, with the exception of Iain Duncan Smith; but in the case of David Cameron it was certainly true. He was never comfortable with Mrs Thatcher’s legacy and her admirers generally distrusted him. That is not the case with Theresa May. She will have no truck with redefining herself as a “liberal Conservative”, as Mr Cameron liked to style himself; still less does she feel the need to flatter or toady to the liberal Left. As one loyal friend and disciple of Lady Thatcher put it to me: “Mrs May is just a proper Conservative, plain and simple. And none the worse for that.”

In presenting Theresa May as the antithesis of Margaret Thatcher, critics point to her demands for a “more strategic role” for the state, for stricter rules to govern corporate conduct, or her rhetoric about the Conservatives as the “workers’ party”. These and other policies are depicted as a break with the Thatcherite mantra of rolling back the creeping socialism of the postwar era. Yet Mrs Thatcher unhesitatingly deployed state power whenever she found it necessary and was unsparing in her hostility to corporatists, rent-seekers and monopolists. She would have agreed with Mrs May’s determination to curb predatory capitalists who cripple companies with debts, offload them and leave the taxpayer to pick up the tab for pensions or welfare benefits. One of the functions of the market is to redirect scarce resources that have been misallocated — in other words, to separate fools from their money by legal means.

None of Mrs May’s policies thus far would have seemed alien to Mrs Thatcher, not even her proposals to control and reduce immigration. Much like Mrs May, Mrs Thatcher was denounced for insisting on tight controls on migration, and even using the word “swamped”. Unlike other prime ministers, before and since, she was averse to bailing out obsolescent industries or imprudent financiers. She had plenty of sympathy for employees, consumers, taxpayers, small shareholders and savers who were hit by misfortunes over which they had little or no control, but none for the shysters, sharks and charlatans who shirked their responsibilities in the upper echelons of public or private hierarchies.

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