The story goes that when the head of Margaret Thatcher’s policy unit, buoyed by the success of hiring his first female staffer, put forward the candidacy of a second, the Iron Lady gave him short shrift. “Brian,” she said, “I think we had better see how the first one does, don’t you?”
Thirty years on from Thatcher – and, you’d hope, these sorts of attitudes – female leadership candidates in the Tory party are still being compared to the first one. They cannot escape her. It is the only political heritage that counts. I suppose we must give the party some credit for having any female leaders at all, when Labour has been so pathetically slow on this count. But it only wants them in a very specific mould.
Here’s the bind Tory women find themselves in: they’ll be likened to Thatcher whether they like it or not. If they imitate her successfully, that will win approval with a certain – large – section of the party, but will risk ridicule if their imitation then seems to fall short in some way (how could she think she was up to Thatcher?). If they don’t try, condemnation follows anyway. “She’s no Thatcher,” certain MPs and party members will say, as if exposing some hitherto hidden flaw.
It’s hardly surprising if Liz Truss has attempted some Thatcher-channelling – although it’s important to note that she has not actually made any verbal connections between herself and the former Tory leader, and has denied the comparisons at every turn. “I don’t accept that, I am my own person,” she told BBC Radio 4 last week after being asked if she dressed like Thatcher.
Yet no one can let the comparison go. A brief list of the charges. First: Truss wore a furry Russian hat when visiting Russia, and so did Thatcher. But Thatcher is hardly the first and only Brit to wear a furry Russian hat in Russia. (Fraser Nelson has pointed out that during the same Moscow visit, the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace was wearing one too. He received no Thatcher comparisons.) Second: Truss posed on a tank and so did Thatcher. But military posing is hardly virgin territory for politicians, and when asked about the photograph Truss said she was merely showing support for the troops. Third: in one of the recent debates, Truss wore a pussy-bow blouse, like Thatcher once did. Pussy-bows are slightly old fashioned, but professional women still wear them – it’s a classic option if you want to look smart but feminine. Curiously, similarly dressed male politicians are not accused of being tribute acts to one another.
Although she is still resisting the comparison (“It is quite frustrating that female politicians always get compared to Margaret Thatcher, whereas male politicians don’t get compared to Ted Heath”), Truss is already being accused of failing to imitate her with enough accuracy. Rishi Sunak has added his voice to the chorus: according to the former chancellor, she’s not like Thatcher – he is! He has branded his policies “common-sense Thatcherism”, written an article underlining the comparison, and even likened Thatcher’s upbringing above her father’s grocery shop to his own, helping in his mother’s pharmacy. The comparison contains fewer risks for Sunak (he knows he won’t rise and fall depending on his similarity to the Iron Lady). For Truss, the charge of not being like Thatcher will be more damaging.
It’s clear the Tory party has some weird mummy issues. Some male MPs took to referring to Thatcher as “mummy” when she was in power, and the stomach-turning habit re-emerged during the reign of Theresa May. Thatcher-worship also conceals how the section of the party that now holds her in the highest esteem was, back in the 1970s, the faction that most resisted the idea of a woman leading the party. Symbolic female figureheads are adored (the party also idolises the Queen); actual female leaders, not always so much.
The current leadership race is more Thatcher-obsessed than usual, and not for any particularly rational reason. Comparisons between Thatcher’s economic policies and those of Truss and Sunak involve considerable historical cherry-picking, and there’s the fact that Thatcher governed in different economic circumstances. It is perhaps a sign of how far the party has lost a grip on its identity (it is no longer particularly fiscally conservative, while the dithering over ousting Boris Johnson shows it is no longer a ruthless regicidal machine either) that it is having to raise Thatcher’s ghost for self-affirmation. The FT columnist Janan Ganesh recently pointed out that politics is becoming more about “vibes” and less about concrete reality. Since Brexit, the Tory party has been suffused with the vibes of nostalgia. In that atmosphere, any candidate that can successfully channel the past may “just feel right”.
This is not just a psychological problem for the party – it’s an electoral one. Thatchermania, the membership would do well to remember, is not shared by all voters. In April 2017, a YouGov poll found that the party’s relentless marketing of May as the new Iron Lady had worked: around half of respondents thought the two prime ministers were similar. But they may have misjudged its effect – in the general election that year the Conservatives lost 13 seats. It may surprise the party to learn that in places such as the Red Wall seats it is so keen to retain, Thatcher is often seen as something of a bogey figure. If you felt guilty voting for the Tories to get Brexit done in your former industrial town in 2019, how much guiltier will you feel voting for Thatcher 2.0 in 2024?
[See also: Sunak or Truss: Who won the Tory leadership debate?]