British Prime Minister Theresa May is giving herself a new identity. Suddenly, she’s no longer Theresa Maybe; she’s showing her mettle by moving toward Margaret Thatcher’s politics of the bold and unexpected. She still has a way to go to transform that mettle into the steel of the Iron Lady, but she may be on her way.
Britain’s feminists did not embrace Thatcher as their own. They complained that when she smashed the glass ceiling she pulled the ladder up behind her, giving no helping hand to younger women yearning to try out a pair of her no-nonsense shoes. But Theresa May, who got to be prime minister without an election when David Cameron stepped down after losing the Brexit vote, is about to become her own man, so to speak, in the snap election she called for June 8.
“May in June,” the London tabloids cried.
She and the Conservative Party are heavily favored to win; some polls give her a lead of 30 points over Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. Such remarkable numbers are likely unsustainable because “it’s a long, long while” from May to June, to paraphrase an old song, but barring a collapse the land seems likely to slide beneath her critics. No one’s calling her Theresa the Timid.
Her new power and authority is traced to several sources and comes from many directions. Foremost is her willingness to change her mind. Maybe that’s “just like a woman,” as an unkind critic might say, but maybe it’s a reflection of a confident leader. Only a month ago, May said there would be no early election, that she would serve until the end of Cameron’s five-year term in 2020. The law establishes the fixed term of five years, but the parliamentary system enables a prime minister with an uncomfortable majority to change the law easily.
When the polls showed a strong likelihood of expanding her small majority of 17, she moved quickly after a weekend walk with her husband in the woods in Wales. Critics, including Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, accused her of putting party above country, but she brushed them aside as standard political rhetoric. She regards the Brexit vote taking Britain out of the European Union, which she initially opposed, as the will of the people, and if she takes a mandate from a smashing election victory to the negotiations with the European Union, she thinks she will get a better deal for Britain.
“Britain is leaving the European Union, and there can be no turning back,” she said. “And as we look to the future, the government has the right plan for negotiating our new relationship with Europe.”
Her splintered opposition doesn’t quite see it that way and threatens to divide, if not conquer. She knows she can’t afford to negotiate without a strengthened mandate. The Labour opposition threatens to vote against the deal; the Liberal Democrats threaten to gum up the works of government in whatever way a spirited third party can; the Scottish National Party threatens to mount a second referendum on Scottish independence; and the House of (unelected) Lords, with its opposition to leaving the EU still intact, threatens to continue a dissonant voice against her.
May called the assorted threats “game-playing” in order to promote “division and disunity.” The game players underestimated her. Brexit continues to divide Britain, so she now offers the public something simpler, a new and clear choice. “It will be a choice between strong and stable leadership in the national interest, with me as your prime minister,” she said, “or weak and unstable coalition government, led by Jeremy Corbyn, propped up by the Liberal Democrats who want to reopen the divisions of the referendum.” That put the games in check, if not quite checkmate.
If she wins with the expected large majority, May will take a strong hand to Brussels, further frightening the bureaucrats of the European Union who have established themselves as the masters of the continent. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, frets that Brexit is encouraging “Frexit,” pushing France toward an EU exit. Who knows where that might lead? He compares the muddle to the plot of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, saying, “first an earthquake and the tension rises.”
May summoned courage and a cool head after her walk in the woods, risking three sure years to reach for five. “Fortune favors the fair but gives no guarantees,” writes John O’Sullivan, the English pundit. This does not seem to frighten a prime minister who only yesterday was called Theresa the Cautious. Her call for a snap election is the earthquake shaking up a continent. She might be an iron lady in the making.