Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

She certainly has a steely resolve, but is Theresa May the new Iron Lady? Not quite...


The Prime Minister is strong-willed, but her support for other women and her Anglican religion set her well apart from Margaret Thatcher, writes Mary Kenny.

It's almost a cliche 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 is High Church Anglican (and she also attended a convent school for a time).

May has been compared to Margaret Thatcher, and there are both similarities and differences.

A female leader (and perhaps a male one, too) requires a kind of steeliness - and both share that.

But 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).

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 appointed the first woman 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 May, who is childless.

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 Leadsom to the Environment portfolio.

May is liked by women, and her political adviser, Fiona Hill, is a fiercely loyal confidante.

May 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 May, 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, May has voted to amend the law, to introduce restrictions on late abortion.

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, May 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, "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.

May 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, but she faces 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 UK.

For, while May 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 UK 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, May 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 trod carefully, insisting she doesn't want a return to a hard border. 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 situation is on the island of Ireland.

And she may also need some support from Dublin in the Brexit negotiations.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph