Stop comparing Theresa May to Margaret Thatcher – it’s lazy nostalgia

The current Prime Minister faces a different challenge, and pretending otherwise teaches us nothing.

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A self-confessed “Freudian slip” on the Today programme this morning from John Humphrys on Radio 4. During an interview with the Health Secretary Matt Hancock about the planned confidence vote on Theresa May’s leadership, Humphrys asked: “Are you entirely confident that every member of the cabinet will vote for Mrs Thatcher?”

The two men laughed. “Oh, there’s a Freudian slip for you, there’s a Freudian slip!” laughed Humphrys.

You can see why he made the mistake. A little earlier in the programme, he had interviewed Charles Moore, the former Telegraph editor and Thatcher’s biographer, about the parallels between the challenge facing May and Thatcher’s downfall.

“You remember very well what happened in 1990,” Humphrys put to him, referring to the time Thatcher was brought down by a leadership challenge.

And yes, Moore was able to describe very thoroughly what happened then. But he sounded pretty stumped when drawn on what happens now. Because in reality, the similarity begins and ends with cabinet resignations and the party turning against the leader.

Actually what happened in 1990 was a leadership challenge – which hasn’t happened to May yet – from former defence secretary Michael Heseltine.

The Tory leadership rules then were completely different, and involved only MPs voting. Challenges were triggered by a candidate standing against the leader – as Heseltine, nominated by then Tory MPs Neil Macfarlane and Peter Tapsell, did in 1990 – and then decided by a series of ballots of Tory MPs.

To win the first round outright, a leader needed an absolute majority of votes, and also a lead of 15 per cent over the challenger. Although she won a majority to fight another ballot (which would then involve more candidates), Thatcher didn’t achieve the latter, so stood down. Then more challengers – John Major and Douglas Hurd – stepped up, and Major won, despite being narrowly short of the required majority, when the others withdrew.

So no, using Thatcher’s experience to work out how much May has to win by to stay on isn’t helpful. Not only is May not in a leadership contest – she also only has to win a simple majority. One vote could mean she stays on for at least a year.

Yes history teaches us lessons, but the obsession in Westminster politics with comparing Thatcher to May betrays a certain strand of lazy nostalgia and, of course, sexism.

This kind of kneejerk recall is probably part of the reason British politics is in this mess in the first place – it echoes the hollow (and often completely illogical) historical examples so often spouted by the Brexiteers: 1066, Hitler, the Corn Laws, Agincourt, Waterloo, Trafalgar and Boudicca.

Yes, the “Mrs Thatcher” slip was “Freudian” – but rather as an insight into the flawed mindset of Westminster watchers than a poignant historical repetition.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

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