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The Bloody Difficult Brigade

12/07/2016 10:10 | Updated 12 July 2016

Theresa May - said Kenneth Clark, caught unawares on camera - is 'a bloody difficult woman'. It was quite an endorsement, actually. Because when he added to Malcolm Rifkind that they had, after all, worked for Margaret Thatcher, the link in his mind was plain to see.

Comparisons with Baroness Thatcher are inevitable for both May (the Iron Mayden, as one headline called her) and her rival Andrea Leadsom. But in fact, difficult women at Westminster have a far longer history.

Think of a female autocrat who once stalked there - a figure of charisma and controversy. One who came to power against the odds, but wound up giving her name to an era. One who went down in history . . . We could be talking about Margaret Thatcher - or about Queen Elizabeth I, back in the sixteenth century. And comparisons between those two come rather easily.

Both wanted to be seen as statesmen first and women second, but neither hesitated to play the feminine card when necessary - Elizabeth with her flirtations and her appetite for flattery, Mrs Thatcher (as then she was) with her reproof that an opponent was 'ungentlemanly'. Elizabeth described herself as married to her country; Mrs Thatcher was pictured as the nation's stern nanny. Now we have Theresa May with her kitten heels - and Andrea Leadsom's suggestion that her motherhood would make her the better prime minister of the two, though that may backfire, spectacularly.

In 1550s England it was considered extraordinary to see a queen attempting to rule without a husband. In 1980s England - said the broadcaster Jon Snow - he still found it very odd to be interviewing a woman, whose very skirt and stockings gave her gender away. Both women provoked whispered questions as to whether they were not really a man (in Mrs Thatcher's case from the Chinese premier). Perhaps none of the whisperers could believe a woman could rule so successfully.

But both women provoked something else too - a blend of fascination and fury. Not only from their adversaries, but from the men working under them, often caught on the hop by their blend of inspiration and obstinacy. Mrs Thatcher was ultimately brought down by the men around her, while Elizabeth too saw her nation tire of 'petticoat government', and her ministers and favourites turn away. Nothing in Thatcher's Cabinet meetings matched Elizabeth's Tudor temper tantrums - but perhaps that is just the fault of our mealy-mouthed day.

Both Iron Lady and Virgin Queen have been blamed for having failed to promote women to any significant degree. Of having a rivalrous relationship with another eminent woman - in Mrs Thatcher's case, the Queen of England; in Elizabeth's, the Queen of Scots. Of being, in fact, a queen bee.

That's one way in which Theresa May at least shines by comparison with her illustrious predecessors. Co-founder of Women2Win, set up to promote more Conservative women into Parliament, May was indirectly mentor and sponsor even to her rival Leadsom, ironically. But both Margaret Thatcher and Elizabeth Tudor left an undisputable legacy for other women - whether or not the two leaders themselves would have wanted it that way. When she died, Barack Obama spoke of Mrs Thatcher as having smashed a glass ceiling for his daughters. To Harriet Harman, as a leading woman of the opposing party, the famous Conservative was nonetheless 'one of the great leaders of the twentieth century'.

Elizabeth and Maggie both used tough talk. There's a direct line from the Tilbury speech with which Elizabeth hurled defiance at the advancing Spanish Armada, to Thatcher's famous 'The lady's not for turning'. And whether or not Theresa May knows her history, she seems to follow that ballsy line quite naturally. 'I am a bloody difficult woman. The next man to find that out will be Jean-Claude Juncker' she said, reassuring her party that Britain's negotiations with the European Union would not be conducted by a patsy.

There's always been a theory, of course, that the advent of more women into politics would make the whole thing more cosy. Collegiate, non-controversial . . . The idea that women are temperamentally averse to - or unsuited for - the fray has been used simultaneously to elevate and to disallow them.

In fact the jury is still out on that one. Never mind the Conservative contest in Westminster, Angela Eagle is expected to aggressively challenge Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership any day. And new research suggests that the way men and women speak out in public life is not necessarily different (though the way their assertiveness is perceived may be).

But you know what? That's ok. If the very stones of Westminster quake at the tap of a pair of kitten heels - well, that is just part of our history.

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