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Theresa May is a new kind of Iron Lady, one who knows the flaws of Thatcherism

Labour people might convince themselves that styling herself as the new Maggie will damage the incoming Prime Minsiter. They would be wrong

Andrew Grice
Friday 22 July 2016 17:01 BST
Prime Minister Theresa May has a solid plan for the nation, and that should make Labour very worried
Prime Minister Theresa May has a solid plan for the nation, and that should make Labour very worried (PA)

The winds of change are blowing through Downing Street. Theresa May’s aides will replace some of the paintings from the Government Art Collection with framed quotations from the mission statement she made outside Number 10 on becoming Prime Minister.

They may include May’s pledge to champion struggling working class families rather than “the interests of the privileged few”; to fight “the burning injustice that, if you’re born poor, you will die on average nine years earlier than others"; her admission that “if you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university” and her statement that “if you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white".

The aim of putting these tablets of stone on the office walls is to remind May’s staff that they are there to serve the people, and not in power for its own sake. There are plans to measure progress against her ambitious goals every three and six months.

Although there was plenty of frantic activity behind the scenes, May’s transition was remarkably smooth given that it was done so hastily. She had not made many plans for Number 10. Suddenly, she had two days rather than two months to prepare when her rival Andrea Leadsom withdrew from the Tory leadership race.

But May knows her own mind and had a plan in her head even if it was not all written down. “This is the opportunity to do all the things we always wanted to do,” she told her closest aides.

Her style of government is very different to David Cameron’s. May wants to end the government-by-headline seen since the Blair era. Her ministerial appointments were announced in press releases rather than on Twitter. She will worry less about the headlines on “the Six and Ten” (o'clock news) and more about getting decisions right. Several policy announcements, including the government’s long-awaited obesity strategy, have been delayed so they are road-tested first.

There will be fewer announcements, but when they come they will be big. “Less is more,” says one insider. May is replicating the model that served her well in six years at the Home Office, often a political graveyard. But running an entire government will be a much bigger challenge; it is a multi-headed monster and stuff happens way beyond Downing Street’s control. The media is also a monster, and it has a voracious appetite. Despite the dramatic events of the past month, newspapers are already complaining that they are not being fed enough by the new administration. Governments that don’t fill the media vacuum can appear at the mercy of events.

May’s allies insist that caution will not mean a lack of radicalism. She has already grown in the job; in her two Commons performances this week, she seemed much more confident than when she was Home Secretary. Her polished debut at Prime Minister’s Questions was a revelation even to admirers hoping she would merely survive it. She didn’t use the straight bat of her cricketing hero Geoffrey Boycott. “She hit Corbyn for six,” said one jubilant Tory MP as he left the Commons chamber.

May also survived potentially tricky first meetings with Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande. The only blip so far came when Boris Johnson’s plane had to make an emergency landing at Luton Airport en route to Brussels. For a while, Downing Street aides held their breath; it would not be good to lose a foreign secretary in the first week of a new government.

Theresa May questioned over Boris Johnson appointment by German press

Some Tories think May is blessed with good luck after such a smooth path to the premiership. But she's also shown good judgement. Some MPs backing her in the leadership election wondered whether she had the stomach for the fight when she ordered her team not to make personal attacks on rival candidates. But it was the right call; the male candidates killed each other and she tiptoed across the bodies into Number 10.

May should enjoy her honeymoon, as it might not last beyond the Tory conference in October. While catching her breath over the next month, she will have to work out what “Brexit means Brexit” really means. Soon she will have to disappoint people – perhaps including Tory Europhobes ready to cry foul if she wins only “some control” over EU migration and does not end free movement, in order to preserve some access to the single market.

Aides say that May “is not phased by hard decisions” and had good training as Home Secretary. She will need it, and not just on the Brexit negotiations that will dominate the next two-and-a-half years. An NHS financial crisis looms, and it could test her compassionate Conservatism to the limits. Wise senior Tories wonder how on earth, with the economy struggling, May will fund her ambitious “opportunity for all” agenda.

Some Labour people, desperate for a ray of hope in their gloom, might convince themselves that styling herself as the new Margaret Thatcher will damage May because our first woman Prime Minister did not match her economic reforms with social justice. They would be wrong.

Labour should be worried about May. The mission statement soon to adorn Downing Street’s walls could have been made by a Labour leader. May is well aware of the flaws of Thatcherism and wants to provide the missing half of the coin. The new Iron Lady has a heart.

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