James Forsyth James Forsyth

Why Theresa May isn’t the new Iron Lady

Curbs on executive pay, restrictions on foreign takeovers and workers on boards. Not Jeremy Corbyn’s plan for Britain, but ideas raised by Theresa May and put forward for discussion at her cabinet committee on the economy and industrial strategy. Not for 40 years have the Tories had a Prime Minister so firmly on the left of the party.

May joined the Tories before Margaret Thatcher became leader and in many ways she represents a bridge back to the pre-Thatcher era. That is why comparisons between Britain’s two female prime ministers don’t reveal much — they come from very different traditions.

Since Thatcherism took over the party, many Tories have looked to the United States for intellectual inspiration. But May is more of a continental-style Christian Democrat. Her last conference speech was described by one Tory who has known her since Oxford as ‘the most Christian Democrat speech by a Tory leader I’ve ever heard’. A Thatcherite former cabinet minister was less impressed, complaining that it was ‘socialist’.

May’s new ‘shared society’ soundbite is in deliberate contrast with Thatcherism. It is also more different from Cameron’s much-mocked ‘big society’ than it sounds. Cameron was talking about Edmund Burke’s little platoons in action; as the posters at Tory conference used to put it, ‘Big Society, not big state’. May thinks her vision is best served by an active state. Unlike many Conservatives, she doesn’t talk about small government as a good thing. And she doesn’t, she stresses, want a government that will get out of the way, but one ‘that will make the system work’ for the just-about-managing classes.

In just over a week she will set out her ‘industrial strategy’ — a phrase that Tories used to mock. It will not be as interventionist as it might have been.

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