Jayne Dowle: The spectre looming over every female politician

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WHAT would Margaret Thatcher have made of Nadine Dorries? I hear the Conservative Member for Mid-Bedfordshire is publishing her semi-autobiographical debut novel, The Four Streets.

It’s a rumbustious tale of growing up in 1950s Liverpool, populated by kindly dock-workers, paedophile priests and an undertaker named Mr Clegg.

Contestant on I’m a Celebrity one minute, novelist the next. How does she find the time to do her day job? Like many taxpayers paying the backbencher’s wages, I suspect Lady Thatcher would not have been impressed with this work-life balance.

Yet, you could argue that without the precedent set by a grocer’s daughter from Grantham, Ms Dorries would not even be a MP. If we’re looking for the Thatcher legacy a year after her death, here’s a clue. It’s pretty to safe to say that a bus driver’s daughter like Ms Dorries wouldn’t have made it past the selection committee, never mind to the jungle, if Thatcher had not blazed a trail at a time when politics was the near-exclusive preserve of men.

Ah yes, those selection committees. While the wider world has undergone a gender revolution since Margaret Thatcher entered politics in 1959, the Conservative Party is still tying itself in knots over female candidates.

Women are still woefully under-represented in the Parliamentary party, and this is before the de-selection of Anne McIntosh in North Yorkshire. Former party chairman Caroline Spelman has recently added her voice to the call for all-women shortlists. It’s an argument that a young and ambitious Margaret would have been familiar with as she faced the old school tie in white gloves and hat.

Much is always made of the fact that Thatcher did little to promote women when she finally made it to power. This misses the point. She did not become a politician to support any kind of feminist cause. She didn’t find the ambition to become Prime Minister because she was waving a flag for her sisters. She did it entirely on her own terms.

It is wholly wrong, therefore, to assume that she set some kind of mould for female politicians. Quite simply, there was no-one like her – there has been no-one since – and it is facile to imagine another one waiting in the wings to ride to the rescue like Boudica astride a chariot. Instead, we have Nadine Dorries plugging her book.

Politics is often a science of black and white. However, if we really want to see where Margaret Thatcher left her mark, we have to be more subtle than that. We have to look beneath the surface to see how her influence pervades. We can look to female politicians who do cite her as a role model – and these often come from surprising sources. For instance, Oona King, the former Labour MP, has said Thatcher inspired her to enter politics. Yet, at the same time, she wanted to oust her from Number 10 because she detested her policies so much.

We can look also to the current Conservative front bench, which has become infamous for its male-dominated public-school yobbishness. Imagine Mrs T being told to “calm down, dear”. I’d wager that there is a collective determination in the sub-conscious of David Cameron and George Osborne never to be bossed around by a woman again.

There’s the sense still – even though it is more than 20 years since the Iron Lady last sat in the Commons – that boys will play while nanny is away. And mock female members for speaking in regional accents, as Pat Glass, MP for Durham, raged against earlier this year. Have we really made no progress since Thatcher took elocution lessons to better fit in?

For a woman who never claimed to be a role model, her influence still holds tremendous sway. She made it harder for women to follow her, and not just because she chose not to promote many beyond the status of junior minister. This remains a challenge for today’s female politicians. The comparisons will always be made. Too strident? Thatcher at her hectoring worst. Too politically-correct? Thatcher would have had no time for breast-feeding in the Commons, she would have been driving a tank.

That’s why so many female politicians have adopted the default position of overly-concerned social worker, epitomised famously by New Labour types such as Patricia Hewitt and Harriet Harman and carried on today by the likes of Childcare Minister Elizabeth Truss.

Such a strong character will always attract admiration and approbation in equal measure. This is especially true in our region; who can forget the funeral pyres in Goldthorpe last year? Who heard the news about the closure of Kellingley colliery without recalling the miners’ strike which left scars deeper than any mine-shaft in so many of our communities?

Political fortunes can turn in a moment. Just look at Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, and her misuse of expenses. You can only imagine the reaction of her former leader and doyenne of good housekeeping.

Political reputations take a lot longer to fade. That’s why we won’t understand the true legacy of Lady Thatcher until we stop comparing every female politician to her memory.