The plan to strengthen her position as Prime Minister by holding early elections viciously backfired. Losing the majority in Parliament, May now has to form an alliance with the right wing Northern Irish DUP. Meanwhile, the results determine her legacy: the woman that was nothing like the Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher.
A Comment by Adrian Eppel and Norbert Wessendorf
On June 8th, Theresa May sought to reinforce her political mandate by extending her majority in the House of Commons through a popular vote. She aimed at silencing inner party rivals and public critics of her hard Brexit course, a plan that crushed and burned. May is now in a position with her back against the wall and as we know from her past, situations like these make her more determined.
The EU’s Chief Negotiator for Brexit Michel Barnier and his team should deal carefully with her. It would not be in Theresa May’s “strong and stable” nature to back down on promises made publicly. She will continue to put Britons first, seeking out what is best in her mind for those at home and in the EU.
Her legacy as Prime Minister is more than ever before tied to the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. By design, May faces comparisons with Britain’s first female Prime Minister, the Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher. We know now that May is nothing like Thatcher, although she has tried to be more like her. Leading up to the general elections May called for last April, she aspired to give herself a sharper profile with brash public statements. But it takes time to forge iron.
Rise to Power
Growing up in religious households, both women were instilled with a protestant work ethic. But it was not a coincidence that the determined young women would one day represent a constituency in the House of Commons. Theresa May is said to have formulated her will to become a Member of Parliament (MP) at the age of 12. Similar to Margaret Thatcher who while still a schoolgirl told her friend’s mother over tea that she wanted to be a MP. However, both girls differed in their desire for attention. While Thatcher won prizes in school debates, May was seen as quiet, shy and studious. Such characterisation does not make a career in politics seem a natural choice.
It took both Oxford educated women three attempts to get into Parliament, accompanied by sexism from male party colleagues. Yet, while May preferred to sulk in such conditions and patiently waited for her revenge, outspoken Thatcher always had a quick comeback. Thatcher ultimately embraced her feminine ways using her sex appeal when campaigning for Edward Heath’s seat, her former mentor and Tory party leader in the 1970s. Having lost power to Labour, the former PM Heath was deemed unfit leading the Tories back into power, especially in comparison with the ambitious Margaret Thatcher.
A Deceptive Character
Apparently Theresa May waited patiently for her opponent David Cameron to falter. Replacing the man who once made her Home Secretary (a position she held longer than any of her predecessors) must have been a surprise to Cameron himself. He took May into his cabinet assuming she would be no threat to him due to her reluctant nature. What others describe as reluctant could also be interpreted as the slogan May chose for the Brexit campaign: being strong and stable.
May is said to have never backed down from any confrontation, as long as it was purely in the field of policies. She takes personal clashes very seriously. Instead of lashing out, May would retreat and wait for her opportunity to take revenge. The political fate of former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne bears testament to this. May had several rows with him over the years, with Osborne seemingly getting the better of her. Once May entered 10 Downing Street, it quickly became obvious that the tables have turned as she did not delay in removing him from his post. This tactic deserves the attention of representatives of other nations – and especially the European Union Brexit negotiation team.
The Ultimate Difference
While both women rid themselves of political opponents quite differently, the ultimate contrast between May and Thatcher derives from their policies. Confident Thatcher never made a secret of her class driven thinking. Her rollback of the state was associated with soaring numbers of unemployment. The Iron Lady saw public expenditure as the root of Britain’s economic problems, promising a smaller state and cutting public services.
May on the other hand wants to create “a country that works for everyone.” The current Tory manifesto, which largely bears her mark, addresses working families especially. A promise to assist them in their struggle for affordable housing would not have been in Thatcher’s nature. Seeing her father actively seeking work and not resting until finding a job in order to work his way up, her policies focused on the initiative and responsibility of the individual, rather than state protection.
Besides economic policies, Thatcher as PM was very protective of her people. She expressed sympathy for the fear of many citizens feeling “swamped by people with a different culture”. May on the other hand has a more pragmatic approach to immigration, which is reflected in the Tory manifesto aiming for “fair rules and reasonable management” of immigrants.
The Relationship with Europe
Less worried about immigration and the European Economic Community’s open borders, the British PM in the 1980s considered the EEC to be beneficial insofar as the financial gains outweighed the costs for the UK.
With the UK and particularly the Conservatives, May was rather cautious during the Brexit referendum campaign. Despite portraying herself as a Remainer before the referendum, May’s position was rather lukewarm as she preferred to remain discreetly out of the spotlight. In her new role as Prime Minister she is vigorous about making a success of Brexit. Her goal is to take back “every ounce of sovereignty” from the European Union.
Iron lady yes or no, Theresa May will be no slouch in the negotiations that are set to begin on June 19th. Her determination and endurance made her the leader of one of Europe’s most important nations. On that note, Michel Barnier should not repeat the mistakes of others and underestimate Theresa May.
The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180. Image source: „Street art“, duncan c, http://bit.ly/2rLOWf4, lizensiert unter Creative Commons license 2.0.: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
Adrian studied in the UK, France and Germany and has an MA in International Relations. He is currently doing his PhD in political science at the FU Berlin. As a Polis180 member, he works in the Post-Brexit Europe Area on policies regarding the future of the EU.
Norbert studied in Germany, Russia and the Netherlands and holds an MA in Politics & Society. He is currently working as a Managing Editor for a magazine specialized on sales topics. As a Polis180 member he is involved in the Post-Brexit Europe Area.