Within moments of Theresa May’s confirmation as the next prime minister of Britain, London tabloids and wags were comparing her to Britain’s “iron lady” of the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher. But those taking a closer look see more in common with Europe’s most powerful woman today: Germany’s “iron chancellor,” Angela Merkel.
Both women have a track record of cautious pragmatism. Merkel famously will sit on the fence on many issues waiting for consensus to build before she commits herself to whichever side is more likely to work. May demonstrated her own grasp of patient tactics, opting to stay on the policy sidelines during Britain’s bruising referendum on European Union membership – positioned in the middle, seemingly the best spot from which to take charge of a divided Conservative Party in the wake of David Cameron’s resignation.
“It’s often said that you cannot tell what Merkel thinks about an issue until the last moment, if even then. May seems to be similarly inscrutable. She waits for her moment,” said Hans Kundnani, a London-based foreign policy analyst at the German Marshall Fund think tank.
“Everyone seems to want to compare women leaders to Thatcher. Even when Merkel first emerged, she was compared with Thatcher as well. But actually, Merkel is the anti-Thatcher,” Kundnani said.
“Thatcher was very passionate with strong beliefs and fought for them. She was a divisive politician, whereas Merkel is the opposite. So far, based on what we know of May, there seems to be more Merkel in her than Maggie.”
The German media explored how May, 59, might strike a strong working relationship with the 61-year-old Merkel, Germany’s leader since 2005, citing similarities in substance and style, from family background to hobbies.
“How much Merkel is in Mrs. Brexit?” asked Tuesday’s online edition of the German tabloid Bild, which cited parallels between the leaders and cited hopes that they could form a bond that limits the political damage to Europe as Britain negotiates a slow exit from the 28-nation EU.
Both grew up in the countryside in devout Christian households: May in a village near Oxford where her father was a Church of England vicar, Merkel in a town north of Berlin where her father served as a Lutheran pastor.
They both like to relax in the kitchen and cook for their camera-shy husbands. May says she keeps more than 100 cookbooks at the ready to consult with her investment banker husband Philip, while Merkel has described spoiling her husband, Joachim Sauer, with home-made plum cake.
Neither have children, an issue that proved strangely decisive in May’s quick confirmation as British leader. Her main rival for the leadership, Andrea Leadsom, resigned barely a day after clumsily suggesting she’d make a better leader because she, unlike May, was a mother.
Merkel and May both favor businesslike dress, with a shared fondness for big-beaded necklaces and the colors mint and turquoise. Fashion parallels diverge decisively at their feet, which May famously adorns with an array of high-end footwear.
May’s collection of shoes is so synonymous with her otherwise sober image that the German newspaper Die Welt, when reporting on Britain’s new leader, displayed a front-page shot of her feet in leopard-print heels alongside the headline, “The shoes of power.”
Possibly the biggest issue now is whether May will evolve as prime minister into a consensus-seeking centrist like Merkel or turn right toward her Conservative Party’s most vocally anti-European lawmakers. While Thatcher was famous for inflexibility – “This lady’s not for turning,” she once declared in mocking other lawmakers open to compromise – May has highlighted the need for Conservatives to look critically at their uncaring image and reach out to the poor and marginalized.
“Under my leadership, the Conservative Party will put itself – completely, absolutely, unequivocally – at the service of ordinary working people,” she said Monday hours before officially becoming the prime minister-designate.
May has spent the past six years working as Cameron’s home secretary, the top law and order post for England and Wales, the first five of those in coalition with the left-wing Liberal Democratic Party. Merkel has governed twice with left-wing rivals, and has relentlessly moved her conservative Christian Democrats to the center. Merkel has shifted Germany away from reliance on nuclear power, scrapped military conscription and increased support for working mothers.
The two leaders have carved starkly different paths on the issue that most fueled anti-Europe sentiment in Britain: immigration.
Merkel was seen to inspire a traffic jam of immigrants into Europe with a 2015 promise to provide unlimited shelter to war refugees, a position she’s been forced to moderate as Germany’s capacity to absorb newcomers has been pushed to its limits.
May, by contrast, has been consistently firm in seeking to reduce immigration to Britain – though, in her emerging leadership role, she has cautioned that immigration could spike before Britain leaves the EU.
And on that key question, those comparing May to Merkel see signs that Britain’s negotiations with the EU could prove a drawn-out affair, with May already pledged not to invoke the treaty article formally starting exit negotiations until 2017.
In Monday’s speech, May pledged that “Brexit means Brexit” – but offered not a hint what kind of exit she actually imagines will happen, or when. Some hope that May might come to command the art of the political U-turn, much like Merkel, who has shifted course as events and coalition requirements demanded.
Kundnani said he suspects that May would like to minimize the United Kingdom’s disconnection from the EU’s border-free economy but could find herself with particularly little room for maneuver within Conservative ranks because she, unlike most of her defeated leadership rivals, supported the “remain” side in the referendum.
“She has to be tougher to prove her ‘leave’ credentials,” he said. “She might privately favor another course, but the pressure on her not to backtrack from the Brexit vote will be greater.”