Britain's woman PMs: Why are Theresa May and Margaret Thatcher being compared?

The new leader of Britain's Conservative Party and British PM Theresa May (left) and former British PM Margaret Thatcher.
The new leader of Britain's Conservative Party and British PM Theresa May (left) and former British PM Margaret Thatcher.PHOTO: AFP

As Theresa May took office as the new British Prime Minister, comparisons - for better or for worse - have been drawn to the country's female political icon, Margaret Thatcher.

Looking at the big picture, Britain's political climate is just as murky and explosive as when the Iron Lady became its first female PM in 1979.

Mrs May, 59, is six years older than Mrs Thatcher was when she took over the hotseat, with a year less experience in serving as MP - 19.

 

For her part, Mrs May has sought to play down any resemblances, telling the Evening Standard that " there can only ever be one Margaret Thatcher".

"I'm not someone who naturally looks to role models. I've always, whatever job it is I'm doing at the time, given it my best shot. I put my all into it, and try to do the best job I can," Mrs May insisted.

Still, comparisons are inevitable, say some publications:

As tough as the Iron Lady

The Daily Record wrote that Mrs May shares her predecessor's "authoritarian streak", while the Washington Times said she was "certainly as tough as the Iron Lady", pointing to her strong opposition to uncontrolled immigration.

Adding to her reputation, Mr Ken Clarke, one of the Conservative Party's most senior politicians, was caught on camera last week describing Mrs May as a "bloody difficult woman".

Columnist Suzanne Moore of The Guardian wrote that Mrs May - regardless of what she says in public - has presented herself as the second coming of Mrs Thatcher, and that both were "extremely right wing".

"...these women might not be feminists but they absolutely know how to run rings around patriarchal structures," Moore wrote on July 6.

Both share deep Christian faith

The duo also share a deep Christian faith passed down by their fathers: Mrs Thatcher's dad was a Methodist lay preacher, while Mrs May's was an Anglican clergyman.

Newsweek said that the Iron Lady's "conviction" approach and stubborn nature stemmed from her Christian upbringing, manners and persona, which Mrs May will seek to emulate as Britain deals with the Brexit fallout.

In fact, Mrs May's strong character and ability to command respect among her peers led The Telegraph to describe her as "another Iron Lady".

"Britain has been led by a woman of tremendous will and substance before, and the outcome was a rather good one," it noted.

Eye for fashion


Mrs May adds a touch of glamour to politics with her eclectic collection of shoes. PHOTO: REUTERS/EPA/AFP

They seem to also have a similar taste for fashion. The Daily Mail highlighted Mrs May's choice of a blue power suit in her first day in power, similar to the one Mrs Thatcher wore when she first walked into No. 10 Downing Street.

Mrs May is also known for her eclectic collection of shoes which she says are a good conversation starter.

Mrs Thatcher's handbag was an icon of her era, with the BBC describing it as "a weapon wielded against opponents or unfortunate ministers".

Fashion sense aside, the duo seem to share a facial likeness, at least according to a cartoon by The Times of India.

Education background

Mrs Thatcher and Mrs May are both alumni of Oxford University. The former studied chemistry at Sommerville College at Oxford, while Mrs May graduated from the prestigious school with a degree in geography.

But not everyone is buying into the comparisons:

Mrs May more prominent when she became PM

Several political commentators have pointed out that Mrs May - who was Britain's longest-serving Home Secretary for six decades - is a more prominent figure in the public consciousness than Mrs Thatcher was when she took over.

Mrs May is also likely to be shown greater respect as Britain - and the world, for that matter - is more used to female leadership today.

When she first shot to power, Mrs Thatcher was seen as "a shrill housewife nowhere near ready to lead the country", wrote The Daily Beast's Nico Hines. "The Iron Lady was born later," he added.

She is more like Angela Merkel

According to the Washington Post, a more apt comparison for Mrs May would be to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as both are "determined individuals known for their no-nonsense leadership style".

It noted that Dr Merkel and Mrs May also share a pragmatic approach to politics, a key factor behind their rise to power.

The German leader is renowned for biding her time on issues, choosing to wait for consensus to build before committing to the more popular side.

Similarly, Mrs May showcased her patience by staying on the sidelines during the Brexit referendum, timing her rise to take charge of a divided Conservative Party in the wake of Mr David Cameron's resignation.

Mrs May summed up her approach best in a recent interview with The Telegraph: "My whole philosophy is about doing, not talking ... I've got a job to do, let's get on and deliver."