Britain’s two female leaders are strikingly similar but, faced with terrorism and Brexit, the Prime Minister now has to do it her own way
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.
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.
Here there are differences between the two of them. Margaret Thatcher in 1975 was the unfinished article, but she had four years of opposition to acquire the art of leadership. During this period she also read some Hayek and was effectively tutored in politics and economics by such advisers and supporters as Keith Joseph, Alfred Sherman and T. E. Utley. She developed a political philosophy, though the term “Thatcherism” was not widely used until the 1980s.
Theresa May, by contrast, has been thrown in at the deep end. Politically speaking, she is a work in progress. From May 2010 until July 2016, she was an extremely hands-on and preoccupied Home Secretary. She fought skirmishes with the police, strove unsuccessfully to bring down immigration, deported the “hate preacher” Abu Qatada, refused to extradite the autistic hacker Gary McKinnon to the United States, introduced a Bill against modern slavery, grappled with the inefficiencies of the Border Agency and the Passport Office, and maintained a beady eye on security. This tough and often obdurate lady didn’t have the luxury to fashion a political philosophy, even if she had been minded to do so. It is true that in 2013 she delivered a speech in which for the first time she alluded to the need to help communities which had been left behind. According to Prince, the Cameroons were less than overjoyed by what they regarded as an unwarranted excursion outside her brief, calculated to advertise her leadership credentials. I’ve been told by a member of her current staff that Number Ten subsequently discouraged such interventions.
Like Thatcher, Theresa May established a reputation as an efficient despatcher of business with whom other ministers tangled at their peril. (Prince tells us that she had repeated clashes with George Osborne over her attempts to curb immigration, and after a wealthy Chinese businessman was strip-searched at Heathrow she was on the receiving end of a diatribe from the Chancellor in Cabinet. She never forgave him and, on becoming Prime Minister, sacked him with apparent relish.) But unlike Thatcher in 1979, she is still some way from being able to append an “ism” to her name. Apart from Brexit, where she has made her position admirably clear (“no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain”) we are mostly in the dark, as indeed she herself may be, as to what kind of country she would like this to be.
Yet she has been making up for lost time. On becoming Prime Minister last July she delivered a truly remarkable speech outside Number Ten that could probably not have been made by any previous Tory leader. In invoking black people treated harshly by the criminal justice system, white working-class boys overlooked at school, and those born poor who “will die on average nine years earlier than others”, she sounded much more like a Labour leader than a Conservative one. These themes were taken up again at the Conservative Party Conference last October when she declared that “the government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the rich and powerful but by the interests of ordinary, working-class families”. She has spoken in a similar vein on other occasions, and will unquestionably do so again.
Rosa Prince provides no instances of Mrs May using this sort of language before 2013, and I doubt that there were any. (Her infamous and surely ill-advised 2002 speech in which she told Tories they were regarded as the “nasty party” did not contain any special pleading on behalf of the poor.) For the most part, she has sailed under the colours of “One Nation Toryism”, seldom sticking out her neck in promoting radical policies, though she did champion the cause of more female MPs. Her recent siding with what the Left would describe as the “victims” of society has propelled her into virgin territory.
Some commentators have ascribed these most unThatcher-like sentiments to her childhood as the daughter of an Anglo-Catholic vicar in two different Oxfordshire villages. In a recent column in The Times, Michael Gove (for whom Mrs May formed a dislike during the Coalition years, according to Prince) floated the notion that she is “our first Catholic prime minister”. Although Gove meant “Anglo-Catholic”, he placed her in the tradition of continental Roman Catholic “social teaching”, with its “emphasis on the cultivation of virtue rather than the exercise of liberty or the accumulation of prosperity”. In fact, there is no need to peer over the Channel for illumination since Anglo-Catholics — such as Mrs May’s father, the Reverend Hubert Brasier — are for the most part inspired by the adherents of the 19th-century Oxford Movement, with their newly-built inner-city churches.
Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May were both grounded in religious practice and observance. While the young Margaret Roberts attended Methodist chapel several times on a Sunday, and sometimes preached as a young woman, the young Theresa Brasier observed her father visiting the sick and ministering to his flock, which in Church Enstone and Wheatley in those days would have constituted most of the village, and included many poor people. To oversimplify, Thatcher’s Methodism led her to place more reliance on individual salvation, whereas Mrs May’s brand of High Anglicanism encouraged her to regard religion as a more socially based enterprise.
I happen to have grown up in a rectory in a similar sort of parish, only a hundred miles away at around the same time, and my clergyman father’s churchmanship was similar to Mr Brasier’s, so perhaps I can understand some of the influences that may have affected the young Theresa. If she appears aloof and ungregarious (though friends attest to her personal warmth) it may be because in the small community in which she grew up she was inevitably set apart as the daughter of the vicar, who in those days in the countryside was a respected but necessarily distant authority figure. With such an association it would have been difficult for the daughter in the rectory to fraternise on entirely easy terms. If she had had siblings, Theresa May might have been able to make up for this social impediment, but she was an only child.
The moral legacy bequeathed by her beloved father (who was killed in a car crash in 1981) has no doubt informed her whole political career. Her more recent explicit concern for the poor and those “just about managing” (now dubbed the “Jams”) was fired up by another man. Nick Timothy first came to work for her when she was still in opposition. He is the son of a steel worker and a school secretary. Raised in Birmingham, he took a First in politics at Sheffield University, which he is said to have chosen because he thought that living there would be cheaper than anywhere else. Timothy is suspicious of the Establishment (he had numerous set-tos with the Cameroons), pro-Brexit, and communitarian rather than libertarian in his political beliefs. For him the Conservatives are the natural party of the working class. He is an example of that relatively rare breed — a Tory intellectual.
More than anyone else, Timothy has shaped and refined Theresa May’s ideology — as well as, according to Prince, exhorting her to be more clubbable. It is he who is the fount of rhetoric about helping ordinary people, though we may be sure she believes it from the bottom of her heart. Still only 37, Timothy is a joint chief of staff at Number Ten. The other chief of staff is a Scottish former journalist, Fiona Hill, no less viscerally loyal to Mrs May, who also won battle honours scrapping with the Cameroons, especially Michael Gove. Hill is no intellectual slouch, having been the mainspring of the 2015 Modern Slavery Act (designed to counter trafficking and slavery in Britain) which Mrs May pushed through as Home Secretary.
One could scarcely exaggerate the importance of these two people in the Prime Minister’s — and the nation’s — life. When they were separately forced to resign after run-ins with the Cameroons towards the end of her time as Home Secretary, she was bereft. They were reinstalled as soon as she entered Number Ten. One source quoted by Prince told the Guardian that Mrs May won’t come to a firm view in front of officials. “She goes away for an hour with Nick and Fiona and — boing! — a decision is made.” The third member of the Prime Minister’s inner circle is her husband Philip, whose opinion is often sought. In policy terms he is possibly the least influential of the triumvirate, but in other respects he has been her rock since Oxford days.
It is one thing to stretch out a hand to hard-pressed ordinary people, quite another to offer them concrete help at a time when the Exchequer is hardly overflowing with loose cash. If anything, Philip Hammond’s recent Budget, with its ill-judged and ham-fistedly presented provision for higher national insurance payments for the self-employed, went out of its way to penalise some of the very “Jams” with whom Mrs May had identified. (The reaction in the press may have been all the more incandescent because so many columnists are self-employed, an inconvenient fact the Chancellor may have overlooked.) Nor did the government’s somewhat cavalier hike in business rates in the south of England seem obviously calculated to assist those scraping by, though Mr Hammond did toss them a few sweeteners in his Budget.
On this evidence, the Chancellor would appear to be a bloodless, technocratic sort of fellow — a remorseless (as well as a rather conceited) bean-counter, eager to pump the ordinary taxpayer for all he is worth even as he indulges big companies, which are promised ever-decreasing rates of corporation tax. He plainly has not taken Mrs May’s concern for the “Jams” much to heart. Unsurprisingly, it did not take long for the Treasury and Number Ten to cross swords. Hammond’s advisers were quoted in the Sunday Times as saying that Theresa May’s aides were “economically illiterate”, while they retaliated by suggesting that the Prime Minister had not supported the rise in national insurance which had been “smuggled into the Budget”. The latter claim can hardly have been true, since the measure was trailed in the press for several days before the Budget.
Given the divergent political outlooks of Mrs May and Mr Hammond, and the pugilistic inclinations of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, trouble may well lie ahead. It would be bad for the government and the country, particularly during delicate negotiations with the European Union, if relations between Number Ten and the Treasury were to sour. We had quite enough of that during the Blair/Brown years. That said, Mrs May and her advisers were surely right to force Mr Hammond into withdrawing his proposal for higher national insurance for the self-employed. But the cost of this strong-arming may be that both the Chancellor and the Treasury are already nursing an animus against Number Ten.
The question is the degree to which the Prime Minister can help the “Jams” and improve social justice during a period of continuing belt-tightening. It is true there are some things the government could do which might not be particularly expensive. Most of us would cheer if the rapacious energy and utility companies — so greedily oblivious to the interests of the “Jams” — were taken to task, though I don’t suppose Mr Hammond would be overjoyed. But better hospitals and schools cost money and there isn’t an awful lot of it about. Nor does the government have much, if any, room to cut income tax for lower- and middle-income earners. There is a danger that Mrs May’s inspiring talk of helping hard-pressed people will ring rather hollow as it becomes clear that her options are limited.
Moreover, such scope as the Government may have will be further reduced if there is an economic slowdown or recession, which after seven or eight years of growth may well be on the cards, since economic cycles always come to an end. Needless to say, any downturn would be immediately blamed by Remainers on Brexit, even if it were not the cause. In such circumstances, Theresa May’s position, at present so commanding, would inevitably weaken — the more so if Labour were able to eject Jeremy Corbyn and acquire a proper leader. The Tory backbench rebellion over national insurance reminds us how the government’s small overall majority leaves it extremely vulnerable. Isn’t it likely that over the next couple of years Conservative Remainers in the Commons will prove less accommodating than they turned out to be over the triggering of Article 50?
Some Cabinet ministers have been privately advocating an early election. I must say that on grounds of pragmatism their arguments seem strong. With Corbyn as Labour leader, and UKIP collapsing, the Tories could reasonably expect a majority of at least a hundred. And yet Mrs May seems unpersuadable. It is not that she is risk averse. At some moments in her political career — for example, refusing to extradite Gary McKinnon, much to the ire of the Obama administration and the discomfiture of David Cameron — this usually cautious and always calculating woman has shown she does not mind going out on a limb. Besides, the dangers of going to the country now are very slight. She has simply made up her mind not to call an election, and being an instinctively obstinate person she is unlikely to change it. Let’s hope that, like Gordon Brown, who failed to seize his opportunity after taking over from Tony Blair in 2007, she will not come to rue her decision.
It’s obvious that none of us can know how things will turn out, and in particular how Brexit negotiations will go. I suppose I would define myself as a short-term slight pessimist and a longer-term optimist. I fear the next few years may be difficult, but believe that in the end we will emerge stronger and more self-confident as a nation — so long as Scotland is not mislaid along the way. But how long will that be? And will Mrs May still be Prime Minister when that happy day arrives?
A consideration strangely seldom mentioned by the press is her health. In 2013 she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, a serious condition which does not often develop in women of her age. She injects herself with insulin four times a day, and has to take great care with her diet and the timing of her meals. She once told the Diabetes UK charity’s magazine Balance that during a long stint in the Commons chamber she had been obliged to eat nuts surreptitiously to keep herself going. Her friend Baroness (Anne) Jenkin, wife of the Tory MP Bernard Jenkin, told Rosa Prince: “There is a limit to how long people can last at the top without their health being damaged or their sanity being damaged. I just think she needs to be careful of her health. Because working at that pace is unsustainable.”
One point of difference with Margaret Thatcher is that, for the time being at least, much of the nation, including Labour voters, has taken Theresa May to its heart as it never quite did the daughter of Grantham. Many of those who had supported Boris Johnson were surprised by the sense of relief they felt when Mrs May stepped forward. It is true we still have no very clear idea what “Mayism” is in terms of policy, and even Rosa Prince’s biography, which I urge anyone interested in the subject to read, does not supply a definitive answer. But the outlines of “Mayism” in terms of character and mood can be discerned. It is a philosophy of rectitude and Christian decency applied by a tough, clear-thinking and sometimes stubborn woman.
All these qualities will be needed in abundance as the Prime Minister confronts a recrudescence of Islamic terrorism. We can’t know whether the Westminster atrocity is one in a sequence of intermittent attacks, or whether it will soon be followed by others. If Khalid Masood had arrived recently in Britain from Syria there would probably be less cause for alarm. Yet he was born in this country and lived here for 52 years. Mrs May was admirably calm and resolute in the immediate aftermath of the outrage. She struck the right note in a way Mrs Thatcher could scarcely have surpassed. Words, though, are one thing, decisive action another. Margaret Thatcher did not flinch in the face of the IRA terrorism, even when her own life was threatened. Theresa May will need all of her predecessor’s nerves of steel.
Her approach to politics is, above all, one of serious intent. After Nicola Sturgeon had opportunistically announced that she was seeking a second Scottish referendum, Mrs May’s response was telling: “Politics is not a game.” It may be a game for the Scottish Nationalists. It was most certainly, in her view, a game for George Osborne and David Cameron, who are in her mind essentially frivolous. Such people do chop and change jobs at the drop of a hat in the hunt for fame or riches. Mr Osborne sees nothing wrong with taking on a newspaper editorship and lucrative City sinecures while remaining an MP. But it’s not a game for Theresa May. It’s a calling. A mission, almost. In that she does have a lot in common with Margaret Thatcher.
Anne Jenkin thinks, “We’re incredibly lucky that she came along at the right time. Somebody, somewhere was watching us.” I know what she means. At this uncertain and sometimes rather scary juncture in our history, Theresa May is a deeply reassuring presence. We will have to wait and see whether she is also an effective one.