Many will remember the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from May 1975 – November 1990. Her sobriquet, originally bestowed by a Russian journalist, alluded to her obdurate political views and leadership style.
Perhaps the best encapsulation of this approach was delivered in a speech in 1980, when many in her conservative party were calling for a policy U-turn because of a looming recession. “You turn if you want to,” she declared. “The lady’s not for turning!”
Nor did she. Seven years later, when the general economic conditions in the country had turned for the better, she was re-elected. Uncompromising to the end, she narrowly lost a leadership vote in her party in 1990 and resigned the premiership.
Now, twenty-six years on, there enters from stage right the second female Prime Minister in the long history of the UK, Theresa May, succeeding David Cameron as party leader after his hapless (mis)management of the Brexit crisis. She has publicly agreed with a commentator’s description of herself as a bloody difficult woman, yet at the same time, has claimed to be a real Goody Two Shoes in her approach.
On first glance, those two self-appraisals would appear to be at odds. And much of her political performance also demonstrates this same antithetical nature. For example, she campaigned for the ‘remain’ side in the recent Brexit referendum, although somewhat tepidly, yet has already signalled that she will get on with the job of exiting the EU posthaste.
“Brexit means Brexit,” she has said, “and we’re going to make a success of it. There will be no attempts to remain inside the EU, there will be no attempts to rejoin it by the back door. As Prime Minister, I will make sure we leave the European Union.“
This, despite presumably voting to remain.
Although a long-time conservative party member, and Home Secretary for the past six years, her approach has been defined as more liberal than many in her party, almost non-ideological in its pragmatic approach to dealing with issues of governance. In her recent leadership campaign (unexpectedly ended when her last rival dropped out), she clearly enunciated policy directions that one mainstay of the media described as going further than the Labour Party’s own positions.
Might that be a strategic move to stage left?
At the same time, another media pillar declared the new PM to be staunchly more conservative, more anti-immigration, and more isolationist than Boris Johnson (he being, admittedly, a moderate liberal conservative), a once-presumed rival for the party leadership, who campaigned aggressively for the ‘leave’ side.
Perhaps this dichotomy in the perceptions of the new leader demonstrates nothing more than the long-standing shibboleth that successful politicians, whether campaigning from the right or left, govern from the middle once elected.
We shall see with Theresa May whether that will be so. But wouldn’t it be the epitome of British irony if, instead, we see a leader who picks and chooses her own path, regardless of that prevailing belief. If such proves the case, given her shifting positions and statements on key issues and policies to this point, Prime Minister May may, mayhap, earn her own sobriquet, echoing Thatcher’s own—
The Iron(y) Lady.