Where will the next Thatcher come from?

Where will the next Thatcher come from?

How long before there’s another female PM?

One of the measures of the significance of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership is that despite being Britain’s first – and so far only – female prime minister, that fact is largely incidental compared to the achievements and actions of her government.  Women heads of government were rare at the time.  She was only the fourth elected female PM (and two of the earlier three followed either their husband or father as head of government); Thatcher was her own woman.

Since then, the trail she blazed has grown surprisingly cold considering the much greater number of women in parliament today.  Leadership is very much still a man’s world.  Since she was elected Conservative leader in 1975, every one of the seventeen people chosen to lead one of the three main parties has been a man.  No woman even stood in most of those elections and of the three that did, none came remotely close to winning.

Similarly, few women have penetrated the upper echelons of the cabinet: only three others have held a Great Office of State since 1979 – Margaret Beckett, Jacqui Smith and Theresa May – and a further seven have run a big-spending department, though none lasted particularly long.

Perhaps Margaret Thatcher has cast too long a shadow; intimidating those who might stand or, perhaps more probably, those voting.  The comparisons would certainly be made and without a very strong CV, would be likely to overwhelm.  It might be unfair but that doesn’t make it untrue.  That shadow may finally be lifting.  Today’s generation of politicians and journalist is not that which had direct contact with Thatcher; those people have mostly retired.  Likewise, her illness has kept the Iron Lady off the stage for long enough for others to make their mark at a time when she’s not been active.

Even so, the prospects of another female British PM seem remote at the moment.  For all the government’s unpopularity, there’s little call for Cameron’s head so no likely vacancy.  If there were one, Theresa May is probably the most credible female candidate for many a year but there’s no guarantee she’d stand and less that she’d win – much would depend on circumstances.  She might be a more possible leadership contender following a Conservative defeat in 2015 but to follow Margaret Thatcher, she’d then need to win the following election: no given.  No other Tory even comes into the frame.

On Labour’s side, Yvette Cooper would stand out as the most credible potential female Labour leader since Barbara Castle (who never in fact contested the leadership), were it not for the fact that her husband also holds very high office.  There will naturally be suspicion of such a high-powered pairing (this to some extent works against Balls too).  In any case, she’s unlikely to get a shot at becoming PM before 2020 at the earliest.

It’s something of an indictment of British politics that there are so few women today who could be considered serious contenders for the top job, with no likely prospect of one getting it before the next decade at the earliest.

Not that Britain is unique in this.  Of the G8 nations, only two have ever elected a woman to their top job – Germany’s Angela Merkel being the other.  Canada was briefly led by Kim Campbell but that was hardly a glorious success.  Segoline Royal, the former partner of the current French president, and Hillary Clinton, the current partner of the former US president, both ran strong but ultimately unsuccessful campaigns.  Italy, Japan and Russia have never troubled the scorers.

All of which goes some way to put Margaret Thatcher’s achievement in simply reaching Number Ten some thirty-four years ago into context.  That she was successful in changing the country and establishing a new political consensus that has lasted since (whether one agrees with those changes and that consensus or not), makes her all the more significant.  Will we see her like again?  Not any time soon.

David Herdson

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