December 02, 2020
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Who Is Theresa May, Britain's First Post-Brexit PM?

The second woman PM after Margaret Thatcher has a task that could have even daunted Churchill

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Who Is Theresa May, Britain's First Post-Brexit PM?
New British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks to the media outside her official residence,10 Downing Street in London. David Cameron stepped down Wednesday after six years as prime minister.
Photograph by:AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth
Who Is Theresa May, Britain's First Post-Brexit PM?

Europe has made and broken several Conservative Prime Ministers. On the two ends of the spectrum, with a gap of 26 years, are UK's only two women Prime Ministers, Theresa May and Margaret Thatcher.

The EU referendum led to Remainer May's entry into 10 Downing Street and it was Euroscepticism that contributed to Thatcher's downfall.

The comparison is bound to come up. Ironically, it was May who wanted to be the first woman PM and was "very irritated" when Thatcher beat her to it, according to her friend Pat Frankland who recalled that May, then Brasier, told her in 1974: "She wanted to be the first woman prime minister back in our Oxford days and she was very irritated when Maggie Thatcher beat her to it. It was just: "I wanted to be first and she got there first." I met her on our first or second day of college, when she was 17 and I was 18. I was aware of that ambition from the very early days."

A year later, in 1975, Thatcher became Tory leader. Neither was Thatcher, May's heroine nor is May a Thatcherite. But both came from similar non-elite backgrounds from public schools, unlike the typical Etonian Tory leaders. Many have drawn comparisons between May's husband Philip and Denis Thatcher, but Frankland says he is his own man. "They are chalk and cheese. I can't imagine him being a clubby, drinking, golf type at all. He is very calm, very supportive, he's behind her all the way. He'll cope with it, he's always seemed a well-grounded individual. I've never seen them fall out."

Two years her junior, May was introduced to Philip by none other than Benazir Bhutto at a Conservative association disco. They married in 1980 after he graduated. From working at Bank of England, May went on to win her seat in Maidenhead and become an MP in 1997. And when she entered Parliament after the win, it became evident Thatcher's inspiration in her life was both political and sartorial. She wore a blue power suit similar to the one worn by Thatcher when she walked into 10 Downing Street.

The similarities do not end there. Both women exhibited their determination and resilience in high-ranking ministerial positions before stepping into No.10. Thatcher earned a reputation of a controversial minister for education, but May's record in government is far more impressive, having had one of the longest tenures as Home Secretary, a brief many find impossible to survive for long. 

During her time in the Home Office, May, 59, has acquired a reputation for stubbornness. Like Thatcher's notorious image of 'handbagging', May's image is of "digging her heels in", in power suits. It comes from her love of shoes but she is unapologetic about her fancy footwear. She once said: "I have no regrets (about being famous for my shoes). The good thing is that they are often an icebreaker." She had famously sported a pair of leopard-print kitten heels at the Conservatives' annual party conference back in 2002, and the eye-catching array of footwear has kept coming ever since.

Although their times are different, both women positioned themselves as modernisers. While Thatcher was an early advocate of neo-liberal economics, May always acknowledged the damaging effect of the Thatcher legacy and chose to modernise the Party by getting more female Conservative MPs through an initiative she founded in 2005, "Women2win." While May is expected to have a much higher representation of women in her cabinet, Thatcher preferred being the only woman round the cabinet table and promoted few women to ministerial rank. 

On the personal front the Mays have no children due to her battle with diabetes, which has been a matter of great regret for the couple. She once said: "I think if you talk to anybody who would like to have had children… I mean, you look at families all the time and you see there is something there that you don't have." People who know her well, believe this is partly why she immerses herself in work. 

It is believed she often goes through her ministerial red boxes until two in the morning, or, for example, firing off emails on government matters on Christmas Eve. She is known to go into details. As Home Secretary her success in deporting Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada, a task her predecessors failed, is seen as the doggedness with which she pursues matters. Being childless is something she has in common with Germany's Angela Merkel, whom she admires for "getting things done" and like her, is also the daughter of a clergyman. As a friend of May said it could well bond the two women during the EU negotiations and both would possibly find moments to share. History will decide whether May is more like Thatcher or Merkel.

But May, like Thatcher, is a consummate politician, although Thatcher was mocked for her high-pitched voice when she became PM and was seen as a "reluctant debutante". May is a far more prominent figure in public than Thatcher was in 1975. But Thatcher was a collegiate and May is a loner.

In times of national crisis and anxiety, Britain tends to look towards women to get them out. Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II, Thatcher and now May assumed power in challenging times. Many believe it is the worst time after the Suez crisis.

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