When she became Britain’s premier in July, much was said of how Theresa May had been Margaret Thatcher’s rival for the job and how similar – and different – the new Conservative Party leader and premier was from Baroness Thatcher.
Although 30 years her junior, May was “irritated” when the Oxford University undergraduate learned Thatcher had beaten her to the role as Britain’s first female premier in 1979.
May has talked about a compassionate society after Brexit yet backed grammar schools’ reintroduction. Thatcher went to a grammar school herself.
But May has so far led without the same vision and purpose that Thatcher managed when she was in power in the 1980s. Already May was forced into a U-Turn on the decision to approve Hinkley Point C nuclear power station after days earlier ordering a suspension of the application pending further review of the Somerset scheme.
May has also struggled to keep discipline and a single voice in government. Her Brexit minister David Davis this week roiled markets with his zealous insistence that Brexit will come what may and his impatience to proceed without delay can – ironically – only play into the hands of foreign powers such as France which stand to gain should Britain negotiate too early with a weakened pound.
The Prime Minister had to intervene on Wednesday to restore some support for sterling – nursing a 168-year low on a trade-weighted basis against major currencies – because of the zeal of Davis and others.
Was the Brexit poll backed by more than 90% of the British electorate – as much as those voting for “Remain” on Britain’s last colony, Gibraltar – one might understand the dogma of those keen to make history at any cost. Anything to impress the grandchildren.
But it was closer to a 50-50 vote. One million votes determined it, yes. But it was still a close-run thing. That means that May has to win over the scepticism of a lot of the populace if she is to make the Brexit with dignity, calm, order and without financial pain.
So far she has not had the courage of Thatcher to tell the voters that they need to be patient and that exiting Europe may not be wise. No referendum is binding and frankly, whatever is decided with Brussels, the fact remains we are living in a more and more globalised world. What clubs we belong to may be irrelevant to our livelihoods, so Brexit might, on that basis, be a costly folly and delusion.
A day doesn’t pass that some expert or official data point to the losses we would endure from Brexit. But the fact is none of this was laid out before the June referendum. Shame.
As it is, we now face a situation where even if the principle of Brexit is noble and sound, we might have politicians who either misjudge and land us a raw deal, or prevaricate so long they are unable to complete the task before the next General Election in 2020.
If May triggers Article 50 by the end of March 2017 it means we would quit the European bloc by March 2019.
She is acutely aware that we must regain the strength of sterling before the trigger and ensure that we are in as powerful a position to negotiate as is feasible.
But is May an Iron Lady? Time will tell. But the number of U-Turns or panic statements to restore market order do not bode well for the long-term.
One example is the re-privatisation of Lloyds Bank, now Britain’s biggest mortgage lender.
Broker Hargreaves Lansdown wrote to the UK government this week to protest about the potential exclusion of retail investors from the sale of its remaining stake in Lloyds Banking Group.
UK Financial Investments Limited, which manages the government’s stake in the bailed-out bank, said on Friday it would look at selling stock to institutional investors over the next 12 months.
But it recommended scrapping plans to sell off some shares via a discounted offer to the general public, a decision Hargreaves branded “disgraceful and patronising”.
Hargreaves have a point. Taxpayers bailed out and saved the skins of many banking institutions, Lloyds among them. It is only fitting, the broker says, that they be given a chance to celebrate in the success story which is the turned around Lloyds.
But it goes further. A private share scheme would also bring back the rosiest memories we have of the privatisations under Thatcher.
“Tell Sid”, and the BT sale are but two examples that sowed a share-owning democracy culture for 25 years until it was shattered during the financial crisis of 2008.
But it would be unfair to remark that this vote-winning vision was all Thatcher’s idea or that she had that concept when she drafted the Conservative Party manifesto with Keith Joseph in 1978-79.
The very first privatisations until 1982 – Amersham International, Enterprise Oil, Jaguar Motors – were all sold quickly to institutions.
While the first two had high-risk ventures and needed much development capital, Jaguar was already back in profit when it was sold in 1982. Similarly, British Airways was turning profitable under Lord King when it was sold the same year.
So it was nothing much to do with funding that swayed the government of the day to sell it whole to institutional investors.
It was only after 1983 that the Conservative government realised that on top of Right To Buy council homes it could benefit electorally to offer shares to the general public of state enterprises it planned to sell off. British Telecom was the first such experiment in 1984 – and it was a hit. More followed.
So is the government now being urged to forget private investors solely because of nervousness that following the 2008 financial crisis they won’t buy shares? If that was the case only institutions would have been allowed to buy into Royal Mail two years ago.
It smacks of a lack of vision on the part of the government and its advisers. The risks around Lloyds are perhaps just a dress rehearsal for the much wider implications of getting Brexit wrong.