Packing a power punch: One party, three women prime ministers

Before 1918, women were not allowed to vote in Britain. Equality laws enacted over the next decades responded to new demands in British society. Now it is one of the rare countries where the top position has been held by three women; all from the same party: Conservative

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By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Fri 9 Sep 2022, 11:50 PM

At noon on Wednesdays, the House of Commons turns into something of a gladiatorial contest. It is Prime Minister’s Question Time and the scene of fierce attacks and counter-attacks, replete with biting sarcasm and repartees, mainly between the prime minister and the leader of the opposition. The Conservative party has been in power since 2010, led by four prime ministers: David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and now Liz Truss. During the time, the opposition Labour party has been led by Ed Miliband, Harriet Harman, Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer. The prime minister and the Conservatives invariably come in for stinging criticism on policy issues, but on one issue Labour MPs have been at a loss for words: the party has never had a woman prime minister, a fact often pointed out with some glee from Tory benches. The Conservative party has had three women prime ministers – a record for a single party in government (Norway has had three women prime ministers, but from three different parties).

It took a while to reach this stage. Once women over the age of 30 were granted the right to vote in 1918, the right to stand for Parliament swiftly followed, but significant barriers to participation remained. A constant refrain throughout the 20th century was that women were too emotional for political life. Masculinity was presented as characterised by rationality and emotional control to justify men’s claims to political leadership, while women MPs have had to struggle against prejudice. When Parliament met to pay tributes to Margaret Thatcher when she passed away in 2013, Prime Minster David Cameron said: “At a time when it was difficult for a woman to become a Member of Parliament, almost inconceivable that one could lead the Conservative Party and, by her own reckoning, virtually impossible that a woman could become Prime Minister, she did all three”. In the 2019 election, 220 women were elected — the highest number ever.

Leaving their politics aside, here is a look at some less known attributes of the three prime ministers: Margaret Thatcher (in office between 1979 and 1990), Theresa May (2016-2019) and Liz Truss (2022-); all went to Oxford.

Margaret Thatcher

Such is her iconic status that both candidates in the recent election, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, claimed to be true inheritors of her legacy. Known across the world, Thatcher initially did not believe that Britain would have a woman prime minister, saying in 1970: “There will not be a woman prime minister in my lifetime. The male population is too prejudiced”. She went on to become party leader in 1975 and prime minister in 1979, holding power until 1990, making her the longest-serving British prime minister in the 20th century. Before the 1979 election, she had intensive training from the voice coach of the veteran actor, Laurence Olivier, developing a calm but authoritative tone that later stood out in her personality.

At the height of the Cold War in 1976, she happily embraced the sobriquet of ‘Iron Lady’ given to her by a journalist writing in Red Star, a journal of the Soviet army. It stuck and she was often described as the ‘Iron lady’, particularly during the 1982 Falklands War. A ‘Margaret Thatcher Day’ is celebrated on January 10 in the Falkland Islands to mark the anniversary of her triumphant 1983 visit to the colony. But she earned another moniker earlier: when she ended a free milk programme for school children to cut spending as the Education secretary in 1970, critics called her ‘Thatcher, the Milk Snatcher’.

Born in 1925 and named Margaret Hilda Roberts, she was the daughter of a grocer and local alderman who later became mayor of Grantham. She grew up in a cramped apartment above her father’s store; it lacked running water, central heating and even an indoor toilet. She later graduated from the University of Oxford with a Chemistry degree. She was part of a research team that discovered a method to increase the amount of air injected into ice cream so that it could be manufactured with fewer ingredients at a lower cost, which led to the production of soft-serve ice cream, later sold from trucks across Britain under the brand Mr. Whippy.

Jonathan Aitken, her aide, recounted several anecdotes in his biography of her, titled Margaret Thatcher: Power and Personality. Once on holiday on the Islay estate, Thatcher went for a walk at night. Her protection officers, thinking she was asleep, were in the pub, but one policeman was still on duty. Suspecting the unknown figure in a long, hooded cloak was an intruder, he unleashed his dog, who knocked Thatcher down and pinned her to the muddy turf.

In her first year as prime minister in 1979, Thatcher travelled to Japan for an economic summit. Since the hosts had never received a woman prime minister or head of state, 20 female karate experts were arranged to escort her. But her cabinet secretary told the Japanese: “Mrs Thatcher will attend the summit as Prime Minister and not as a woman per se. The Prime Minister would like to be treated in exactly the same manner as the other visiting Heads of Delegation”.

Thatcher was close to Indira Gandhi, attended the latter’s funeral in New Delhi in 1984. She received Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in London in 1985, taking close interest in the arrangements for the visit. Declassified files show that officials were keen to schedule three official meetings, but she turned them down, writing on a file: “Too many — we shall be bored”. She also shot down the proposal to hold the official reception in the Whitehall Banqueting House on the ground that it did not have a “good enough entrance… prefer Lancaster House”.

Although Thatcher was prime minister for 11 years, she did not have a chef and every night she reportedly cooked dinner for her husband, Denis Thatcher, and frequently cooked for cabinet members as well. After she left office and moved into her new home in Dulwich, Thatcher did not know how to dial a phone, send a fax or use the washing machine.

Theresa May

I interviewed her before the 2017 general election. It wasn’t exactly newsy, but my abiding memory is of courtesy: she got up to receive me, shook hands for a photograph for the record, and later saw me off to the door (don’t remember such courtesies from leading lights in my years of reporting in South Asia).

May wanted to be Britain’s first woman prime minister, was annoyed when Thatcher got there first. Pat Frankland, who has known May since they enrolled together at Oxford in 1974, told The Guardian: “She wanted to be the first woman prime minister back in our Oxford days and she was very irritated when Maggie Thatcher beat her to it. It was just — ‘I wanted to be first and she got there first’ — I met her on our first or second day of college, when she was 17 and I was 18. I was aware of that ambition from the very early days. She used to drag me along to political lectures”. Daughter of a Church of England clergyman, Theresa Brasier was born in 1956. At Oxford, she was introduced to her future husband Philip May at a disco by their mutual friend, Benazir Bhutto, then a student from Pakistan; the two married in 1980.

The UK’s second woman prime minister, May was the first world leader to serve with Type 1 diabetes. She is open about the disease, refusing to be limited by the condition that requires daily management, particularly during long hours in the House of Commons, where eating inside the Chamber is prohibited. She recalls: “There was one occasion when I had been expecting to go into the Chamber later, but the way the debates were drawn up meant I had to go in at 11am and I knew I wasn’t coming out till about five. I had a bag of nuts in my handbag and one of my colleagues would lean forward every now and then, so that I could eat some nuts without being seen by the Speaker”. She doesn’t let diabetes impact on her schedule or hobbies, such as going on long walks on mountains in Switzerland with her husband, Philip.

Members of the Asian community in her constituency of Maidenhead say she is a popular MP, invariably attending social and religious events, particularly festivals. Her visit to India as prime minister in 2016 came in for some criticism back home, particularly on the issue of visa, but one image of May visiting the Sri Someshwara temple in Bengaluru in a well-worn gold and green sari played well in the community.

Political sketch writers have called her ‘ice maiden’ and ‘Maybot’ due to her robot-like responses inside and outside parliament, but one of the more interesting facets of her personality is her enduring love for cricket. May’s hero is Geoffrey Boycott, the Yorkshire man who in his prime was the scourge of bowlers for his dour plodding at the crease. May often mentioned him when questioned about her ability to deliver Brexit. Just like Boycott, she insisted, she would stick to it and “get the runs in the end”. But that did not really happen, and she had to resign in 2019, ending her speech outside 10 Downing Street in few tears.

During a television interview before the 2017 election, May admitted being a ‘bookish’ child. Asked what was the naughtiest thing she ever did, she replied: “Oh, goodness me. Well, I suppose... gosh. Do you know, I’m not quite sure. Nobody is ever perfectly behaved, are they? I mean, you know, I have to confess, when me and my friend, sort of, used to run through the fields of wheat, the farmers weren’t too pleased about that”. She was subjected to some parody and worse for the ‘run through fields of wheat’ remark. May is also known for her love of shoes. It is one of the first things photographers focus on during a public appearance, but she wishes the media would pay more attention to her political achievements, rather than to her fashion.

Liz Truss

One of the most social media-savvy politicians, images in her feeds show her in various situations, on an aircraft carrier, or in a hard hat, building a ship, or addressing world leaders. Such has been her focus on social media that when she was secretary for International Trade, critical MPs labelled her department as the ‘Department for Instagramming Truss’. Her launch video for the recent election was less slick than Sunak’s, showing her as an international stateswoman dealing with Ukraine, Brexit and other challenges, but it apparently played well with members of the party.

The new prime minister is known to be an enthusiastic karaoke singer, performing during fringe events at annual Conservative party conferences. Joining her for a karaoke session, though, is a costly affair: it was reportedly sold for £22,000 at a fundraiser in 2021. She has said in interviews that she loves 1980s music and that her favourite song is I Wanna Dance With Somebody by Whitney Houston.

Her full name is Mary Elizabeth Truss, but she hates her first name, Mary. She recalled during an interview in 2019 being absolutely furious at being given a badge with Mary written on it on her first day at school; she marched up to the teacher and demanded it be changed. She has always been called by her middle name, Elizabeth. Born in Oxford in 1975, when she was four her family moved to Paisley in Scotland, where she acquired a Scottish accent. In an interview with Sunday Times, she said: “I once had a very Scottish accent. It was a Paisley Glaswegian accent and when I got to Leeds I used to be known as ‘Haggis Basher’. That was my nickname”.

Like May’s husband Philip, Truss’ husband, Hugh O’Leary, has also kept a low profile. O’Leary studied mathematical economics at the London School of Economics, and became an accountant. Some say his mathematical mind may well have attracted Truss, who is the daughter of John Truss, a mathematics professor at the University of Leeds — the new prime minister is said to be passionate about the subject. Truss’ parents have been described as ‘left-wing’, and her father is reportedly appalled by his daughter’s “conversion to extreme right-wing politics” and the policies she has put forth during the recent campaign to be the prime minister.

But changing views in politics is not new to Truss. She campaigned to remain in the European Union during the 2016 referendum, warning that leaving the EU would be a “hugely retrograde step” on environmental protection and could usher in a “wasted decade” for the UK economy. But when the result led to the Leave vote, she soon revised her worldview to become a passionate Brexiteer. Also, she was not always a Conservative. At Oxford, she served as president of the university’s Liberal Democrats Society, and advocated abolishing the monarchy during the 1994 conference of the party. There was of course no sign of the earlier Truss when years later, she went up to Scotland this week to meet Queen Elizabeth to be appointed the new prime minister.

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