Theresa May is seen by the public in similar terms as Margaret Thatcher was in 1979, but voters credit her with more capability and experience
Last week we took a look at how new Prime Minister Theresa May compared to David Cameron after his first week as Prime Minister. The two reputations are similar, with the notable exception that David Cameron was judged to have far higher charisma and leadership skills. But the comparison that has attracted more comment is between Theresa May and the UK’s only other Conservative female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
Unfortunately there’s no perfect match between Thatcher’s premiership and May’s at this stage, but we've found Ipsos MORI poll data on how Thatcher was viewed at two different points: first, just before her election as Prime Minister (April 1979), second, a point near to the six and a bit years that May has been in government (in Thatcher’s case, October 1985).
Theresa May most currently resembles the Margaret Thatcher of 1979. May comes within three percentage points of 79-vintage Thatcher in five out of eight areas: out of touch (24%/25%), narrow minded (16%/13%), understanding the UK’s problems (32%/34%), honest (24%/21%) and down to earth (21%/24%).
Theresa May is seen closer to Thatcher from 1985 in two ways – as a capable leader (40%/39%) and inexperience (9%/2%). By then, Mrs Thatcher had been on the job long enough to be seen as capable and experienced, which Theresa May had already achieved through 6 years as home secretary. Only in the area of 'talking down to people' is Theresa May markedly different from Thatcher – May scores just 16% on this measure, whereas 1979 Thatcher scored 31% worsening to 49% in 1985.
There’s a clear split between which Thatcher May most resembles depending whether the area is a skill or a personality trait. The two areas which Theresa May matches the elder Thatcher are on capability as a leader and experience – in both cases areas where you would expect a person’s performance to improve with time. The areas in which she matches the younger Thatcher, however, are personality based and areas which you would expect to see decline the longer a politician is incumbent.
In this sense, Theresa May has the best of both worlds: her governmental capability and experience are acknowledged by voters, whilst the negative personal perceptions associated with a lengthy incumbency are not present – at least yet. The data does set a clear trajectory though - it will be interesting to see whether Theresa May's numbers will follow Mrs Thatcher's as voters become mroe familiar with her, and she goes through more controversial decisions.