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6 January 2017

Never mind Thatcher – has Theresa May got more in common with Gordon Brown?

Her critics increasingly think so. 

By Stephen Bush

Good news, Prime Minister: you’re on the cover of this week’s Economist. Bad news, Prime Minister: they’ve branded you “Theresa Maybe” and excoriated your approach to Brexit and your approach to running the government generally.

Oh well. Still, never mind. Other magazines are available. But the more alarming thing from Theresa May’s perspective is that this week’s Economist merely says explicitly what much of the commentariat and the press is saying implicitly: that far from Thatcher 2.0 she is Brown 2.0: indecisive, unable to adjust to life in 10 Downing Street after years in a departmental brief, etc.

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Are they right? The early day narrative of “May the destroyer of Labour” was overstated. So is the emerging one of “Brown with better clothes”. For an indicator of the gulf between the two, compare how they managed the decision to have or not to have a snap election.

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Though May’s decision not to ask for an early contest in the first weeks of her premiership may go down as a blunder every bit as big as Gordon Brown’s, it wasn’t accompanied by waves of contradictory briefing and blue-on-blue attacks on members of her inner circle. In fact, the line from Downing Street about why there wouldn’t be an early election was decided on early and stuck to relentlessly.

Where she’s more like Brown is that the PM really only has one steadfast ally in the press: the Mail, which for all its general antipathy to the Labour party was rather sympathetic to Labour last’s PM personally. The FT and the Economist incline more naturally to the brand of Cameroonism and pro-Europeanism that May has junked. The relationship with the Times and the Sun is nowhere as close or as sympathetic as with David Cameron. (Cast your mind back to how the Sun reported May’s rather bland remarks about God for a sense of how much less friendly the new relationship with.) As for the Telegraph, they increasingly occupy a space to May’s right.

Which at the moment, doesn’t seem to matter. The public still like May a great deal and overwhelmingly favour her to run the country over Jeremy Corbyn or Tim Farron. But if the economy goes south, if Labour or the Liberal Democrats’ position in the polls begins to improve, the PM’s weakness even among the usual allies of the right could come back to haunt her.