Jayne Dowle: Time for female politicians like Theresa May to emerge from Margaret Thatcher’s shadow

Home Secretary Theresa May's handling of the Hillsborough disaster has been much praised.
Home Secretary Theresa May's handling of the Hillsborough disaster has been much praised.
Have your say

CERTAIN politicians have not exactly covered themselves in glory over the Hillsborough disaster. Tony Blair’s blasé dismissal of the call for a new inquest, for instance, has hardly shown the former Prime Minister in a good light. Yet the aftermath of the proceedings has brought an often under-rated political figure to our notice.

It fell to the Home Secretary, Theresa May, to read the determinations of the Hillsborough verdict to the House of Commons, and thus the world. In doing so, she proved that she has the ability to rise about the clamour, in-fighting and nastiness that characterises Westminster.

Imagine, for a moment, Boris Johnson reading out the terrible details of what happened to the 96 Liverpool fans unlawfully killed, and the immoral collusion of the police force in covering up the truth.

Mrs May is a Tory through and through, but keeps her personal views to herself. When speaking, she had all the majesty of Margaret Thatcher at the height of her prowess, but it came across tinged with a dignified humanity that made it all her own.

There I go. None of us can help ourselves. Even when a politician as accomplished as Mrs May is doing so well in the spotlight, the default mode is always to evoke a comparison to the Iron Lady. Such was the influence of this pioneering female politician on British politics, it has been – and I don’t exaggerate here – impossible for any woman to come to prominence since and avoid being measured against her.

It is more than a quarter of a century since Mrs Thatcher left office, and she has been dead for three years. Yet her shade still stalks the political scene as if she was looking down from the gallery. With respect to the late Baroness, we need to find a way to exorcise it. It doesn’t matter where on the political spectrum female politicians find themselves, the comparison is reductive. We won’t move on and even dream of achieving parity between the sexes in British politics until we have got over it.

That said, politicians have a lot of work to do on themselves. Only last week, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon launched a new series of billboard adverts for the SNP with the slogan: “Don’t just hope for a better Scotland, vote for one.”

You don’t need the brain of a Saatchi & Saatchi whizz kid to recognise that this is a direct rip-off of a 1979 Conservative campaign poster which bore the tagline: “Don’t just hope for a better life. Vote for one.” Even the design of the poster is strikingly similar; the only difference is Sturgeon has eschewed the pussy bow blouse for her trademark power jacket.

It is, of course, a supreme irony that the Scottish leader entered politics because she wanted to put right the wrongs Thatcherite politics did to her country. Even so, when she was elected SNP leader in 2014, the Scotland Minister David Mundell couldn’t help but congratulate her on “emulating Margaret Thatcher and becoming the first female leader of her party”.

Of course, much of this is to do with the fact that the grocer’s daughter from Grantham was a phenomenon. Whether you worshipped or loathed her, you cannot deny that – like Sir Winston Churchill – she had an indefinable quality. That’s why her influence has permeated down over the years to not only impact upon how female politicians see themselves, but also on how male politicians regard the women in their midst.

Why do you think the current Conservative Party could often be mistaken for a rowdy Common Room at a minor public school? This boys’ club doesn’t want to let in anyone who might upset their conviction that they, and only they, are born to rule. Ask any woman who has attempted to get selected as a candidate and run the gauntlet of local association scrutiny and you’ll get the same kind of feedback. It is born of fear.

Nothing, though, is as stultifying to progress as fear. This is why the Labour Party too struggles with allowing women to move upwards through the ranks to be crowned leader in her own right. Put frankly, Labour men don’t want to be bossed around by a woman who can put them in their place in any argument. I’ve heard Labour stalwarts actually say that they saw what Mrs Thatcher did to the country, and they wouldn’t want another woman in charge who wanted her own way. With this kind of blatant sexism still rife in our major English political parties, is it any wonder that we can’t move on?

There is no point female politicians entering the fray and simply reiterating the point that Margaret Thatcher was an inspiration to them. It’s all too predictable. Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, for example, who is talked of a potential leadership contender, calls her “one of her political heroes”.

In doing so, our female politicians both show limited imagination, and set themselves up for a fall. There is no doubt that Margaret Thatcher broke the mould. It is time everyone in politics – women, and men – smashed it to pieces.