I suppose the Margaret Thatcher comparisons are inevitable. Britain has had only one other female prime minister, and she was also a tough-minded Tory. Still, it's a poor analogy. Prime ministers are, in large measure, defined by time and circumstance, and here Theresa May is far luckier than her predecessor.
Thatcher took over in 1979, at what must be reckoned Britain's lowest moment. The country had been in decline since 1945, partly because successive governments had sought to inflate away the vast debts Winston Churchill had run up to win the war and partly because of wrong-headed interventionist policies, including the regulation of prices and wages. She faced constant sniping from within her own party and was never much liked by the electorate. The magnitude of her achievement was this: that she defeated every vested interest, took Britain from the being weakest economy in Western Europe to being the strongest, went on to win three general elections and the Cold War – and did it all from a position of relative weakness.
May starts from an altogether more enviable place. She was the overwhelming choice of Conservative MPs – so overwhelming, indeed, that her rivals pulled out of the race. She faces no serious opposition from the other parties. Labor has retreated into far-Left introversion and, according to opinion polls, is heading for its worst defeat since the 1930s, when it first emerged as one of the two main parties. UKIP, which came third in terms of the popular vote at the last election (though the vagaries of the electoral system gave it just one MP) has secured its primary objective – that is, it helped win a referendum on leaving the European Union. Its sole MP, Douglas Carswell, is standing down with a cheerful smile, job done. Its voters are drifting to the party that is actually delivering Brexit, namely the Conservatives.
Meanwhile, the British economy continues to outrun every prediction. The International Monetary Fund, which had warned of an immediate crash in the event of a Leave vote, has yet again upgraded its forecast for 2017 and now expects 2 percent growth. Since the referendum, employment, investment, manufacturing output, growth, retail sales, business confidence, startup launches and the stock exchange have all risen handsomely. The only things that have fallen are the previously over-valued currency and the mood of prominent EU supporters, who can't quite hide their disappointment at the non-appearance of their promised recession.
May voted Remain, but sincerely and enthusiastically embraced the referendum verdict – which, given the narrowness of the result, puts her bang in the middle of where British public opinion is.
She is in touch with the electorate in another way, too. A centrist conservative who has always seen herself as a champion of lower-income groups, she speaks for a broad swathe of voters who have felt voiceless. There is a solid chunk of public opinion, drifting between working-class Tory and patriotic traditional Labor, that is tough on crime, hostile to immigration, skeptical about homosexuality and sympathetic to state intervention. It's not exactly my cup of tea ideologically, but, if I'm honest, it is the most under-represented position in Parliament.
The Labor Party, obsessed with identity politics and led by a dotty Leftist who supports Hamas, Hezbollah and the IRA, has left that field wide open. May can realistically hope to sweep up dozens of Labor-held constituencies.
From her first day in office, the new prime minister emphasized that her objective was to save the market system, not to abandon it. She grasped, earlier than many, that the 2008 crash and the bailouts that followed made capitalism look illegitimate to many people. In a number of Western countries, voters are turning in response to populism and nativism. May understands that, in order to avoid a similar outcome in Britain, the system has to be seen to deliver for the poor.
The new prime minister, in short, has all the advantages that Thatcher lacked: a united party, a pitiful and shredded opposition, stratospheric personal approval ratings, a growing economy. Not since Churchill's second term in office has a British prime minister enjoyed such total authority – and, unlike Churchill by that stage, May is in her prime. The only thing she has so far lacked is a direct personal mandate – but the election is likely to deliver that in spades. Two months from now, May will be the strongest leader in Europe.