Saturday 24 March 2018

Is Theresa the new Maggie? Not quite

Theresa May is steely enough, but her support for other women and her Anglican faith set her apart from the original Iron Lady

One-of-a-kind: Margaret Thatcher
One-of-a-kind: Margaret Thatcher
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

It's almost a cliché now to describe Theresa May as "the vicar's daughter": but it's an essential element of who she is, and she has frequently referred to herself in that way. The key to her character and formation is, indeed, the Church of England: Michael Gove has even referred to her as "Britain's first Catholic Prime Minister" because her background was High Church (and she also attended a convent school for a time).

Theresa has been compared to Margaret Thatcher (inset) and there are both similarities and differences. A female leader (and perhaps a male one too) requires a kind of steeliness, and both have shared that. But Mrs Thatcher was much more of a man's woman - she always preferred to be surrounded by men in cabinet, and seldom promoted women in politics. (Maggie's favourite European country was Poland, partly because Polish men kissed her hand in the old style of Hapsburg gallantry.)

Mrs May has shown much more sympathy for feminism and the promotion of women: she launched a lobby group within the Conservative Party, Women2Win, and as Prime Minister she has appointed the first woman as Lord Chancellor, Liz Truss, a woman as Home Secretary, Amber Rudd (formerly Mrs AA Gill) and a gay woman, the experienced Justine Greening, at the Education and Equalities ministry. She also showed considerable grace when Andrea Leadsom rather tactlessly suggested that as a mother, she had an advantage over Theresa, who is childless.

Mrs May immediately spoke of her disappointment that she and her husband Philip had not been able to have a family, conceding the point by implication - and then magnanimously appointing Andrea Leadsom to the environment portfolio. Theresa is liked by women, and her political advisor, Fiona Hill, is a fiercely loyal confidante.

Theresa has taken a special interest in feminist-themed subjects such as slavery and the trafficking of young women for prostitution, and backed initiatives to combat domestic violence. But this, too, is linked to her Anglican roots: Victorian feminists like Josephine Butler and Millicent Fawcett were formed by strong Christian associations.

Thatcher, too, was much influenced by her Methodist upbringing, but for Maggie, this was more a question of values and virtues: prudence, parsimony, sobriety (though she was fonder of whisky than a Methodist should be). Whereas, with Theresa, it is more a matter of faith: she is a sincerely committed Anglican, and attends church because she is a religious believer, not to make a symbolic statement.

On issues like abortion, Thatcher was pro-choice. She once sat up all night in a long parliamentary debate to ensure she could vote against an attempt to curtail the liberal British abortion law. By contrast, Theresa May has voted to amend the law, to introduce restrictions on late abortion.

Theresa May was an only child, and only children often have more confidence in their affirmations, as they haven't had the experience of competing with siblings. They're also often more self-reliant. As Home Secretary, Theresa clashed with the Police Federation by telling them to quit whingeing over budget cuts: they gave her the silent hostility treatment, but she stood her ground. She hasn't been popular with the Cameroons - the David Cameron wing of the Tory party - who regard her as too much of a schoolmarm. And she has no great esteem for the "posh boys" like Cameron and George Osborne, who, in the words of another maverick Tory MP Nadine Dorries who "don't know the price of a pint of milk". David Davis, the self-made son of a single mother, who grew up in a council flat in south London, is rather more her cup of tea.

Theresa will need to be self-reliant in the coming times. It is assumed - perhaps too complacently - that the June election will deliver her a landslide, and she faces into the gruelling ordeal of detaching the United Kingdom from the European Union. Guy Verhofstadt, the MEP in charge of the EU's Brexit relations, has said that Britain must be subjected to penalties for leaving the club. At the same time, she faces the possible disintegration of the United Kingdom.

For, while Theresa is supportive of other women in politics, there is one woman to whom she is not inclined to extend that sense of female solidarity: Nicola Sturgeon of Scotland. Sturgeon is the living embodiment of a threat to the United Kingdom, and May is a patriotic Unionist. The chemistry has never been good between the two, and it is tempting to see in this political clash a replay of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. When asked to nominate her favourite character from history, Theresa chose the Tudor queen who forged England's identity, and condemned the Queen of Scots to many years in prison and then the execution block.

As for the Irish dimension, May has treaded carefully, insisting that she doesn't want a return to a hard border, and staying in touch with Enda Kenny. But, while a Unionist, she has a more sensitive touch with Northern Ireland than Thatcher, who so absurdly declared that "Ulster is as British as Finchley" (a London constituency with a strong liberal-Jewish profile). Theresa May seems to see how complex the island of Ireland situation is: and she may also need some support from Dublin in the Brexit negotiations.

Perhaps next time he's in an Anglo-Irish bilateral meeting, Enda should take Trevor Sargent with him as an advisor: the former Green TD is to be ordained in the Church of Ireland, a démarche which might elicit fellow-feeling from the Anglican's vicar's daughter.

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