LONDON — For a while, the Thatcher comparisons wouldn’t stop coming.
In the first days of Prime Minister Theresa May’s unexpected tenure, she was repeatedly measured against Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister and an iconic figure in the Conservative Party.
Anger over Europe is a theme in both of the Tory premierships. As did Thatcher, the 59-year-old Mrs. May faces an enormous challenge to stem Britain’s seemingly diminishing role on the world stage and address what appears to be a crisis of confidence and direction at home.
But the “Iron Lady” never had the gargantuan task waiting on her desk at No. 10 Downing St. of negotiating a divorce from the European Union that she didn’t support in the first place.
While joining predecessor David Cameron in opposing Brexit, the prime minister has pledged to uphold the wishes of the voters. Two months into her term in office, that has required a tricky balancing act between an impatient Europe’s wishes to preserve open-door immigration policies and the demands of hard-liners among her fellow Tories who voted to leave the European Union so Britain could exercise more control over its borders.
She faces an early test of her leadership skills Tuesday, when she presents her first address to the annual U.N. General Assembly as prime minister. It will also be her first major public statement on foreign policy, and advisers say her speech will touch on such topics as the Syrian civil war and human trafficking. Mrs. May also will meet with U.S. businesses and investors, making a plea for the attraction of the British market despite the disruptions caused by Brexit.
Polls still show Mrs. May in the honeymoon phase with voters, particularly in contrast to the deep dysfunction of the opposition Labor Party and its unpopular leader, Jeremy Corbyn. One survey said Mrs. May is on track for a crushing victory in the next scheduled national vote in 2020, with the Conservatives projected to win 349 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons.
But with more than three long years before those elections, Mrs. May has political shoals to navigate.
“We have to remember how slim her majority is,” said Tim Oliver, an analyst on Anglo-European relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “If she gets a deal with the EU, she’s going to have to get it through the Commons. I can easily see a fight within the Conservatives when that happens.”
Andrew Rawnsley, a political columnist for the left-wing Guardian newspaper, credits Mrs. May with presenting a clear but reassuring contrast to Mr. Cameron, winning high early poll numbers by offering “the novelty of change with the reassurance of the familiar.”
But for now, Mr. Rawnsley wrote, the prime minister “is a relatively blank canvas on which Tories of different persuasions can paint their hopes, their dreams and their fantasies. Trouble will start when she starts to put flesh on ‘Mayism.’”
Thatcher’s Cabinet colleagues eventually mutinied over her principled but often unpopular policies, including her reluctance to join a European exchange rate mechanism. Observers are now questioning whether Mrs. May can keep her governing majority in line while formulating goals and a strategy for negotiations with the European Union. Brexit supporters are openly suspicious of how energetic Mrs. May will be in pursuing the breakup given her past sympathies.
Speaking to Westminster journalists on Tuesday, former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg predicted that Trade Secretary Liam Fox, a Conservative, would quit Mrs. May’s Cabinet “in a huff” within 18 months to align with Brexit hard-liners in the Conservative Party who want to erect stronger borders between Britain and the rest of Europe.
“The poor chap,” said Mr. Clegg. “If they decide not to quit the customs union, it really will be a little embarrassing because his department will have nothing to do.”
Suffering by comparison
In the meantime, comparisons between Mrs. May and her imposing predecessor are causing headaches for the prime minister.
Thatcher angered other European leaders by demanding special treatment for Britain on EU fees and other issues. But Mrs. May is in no position to make similar demands. Her European counterparts know Britain is leaving the 28-member union, and they have little incentive to grant a better trade deal now.
“The tabloid press has this idea that Britain will get what it wants from Europe by banging its handbag on the table like it did with Thatcher,” said Tim Bale, a political scientist and Conservative Party analyst at Queen Mary University of London.
Mrs. May has been cagey. Once she invokes Article 50 of the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon, the United Kingdom faces a two-year deadline to secure an arrangement with Brussels before it faces automatic ejection from the union.
She has yet to invoke the article to start the clock ticking. Despite calls from other Conservatives and European leaders to do so, she said she will wait until next year.
Mr. Clegg warned that the delay was pointless and counterproductive. “She is sitting on a ticking time bomb, which will at the very least paralyze this government,” he said.
But Mr. Bale said Mrs. May was using a good bargaining tactic.
“She is in negotiations and doesn’t want to give much away,” he said. “We’re only beginning to understand the consequences [of Brexit], and we aren’t clear about what we want, so it would be silly to go crashing in.”
European officials have said repeatedly that Britain’s access to their markets would need to be matched by the right for Europeans to continue to live and work in the United Kingdom without visas, a requirement that is unpopular in Britain and fueled much of the energy for the Leave campaign. EU negotiators were huddling Friday in Slovakia to plan how they want the unprecedented talks to proceed.
Mrs. May, on the other hand, has been subdued about airing her goals in the negotiations, including on immigration.
“The first thing she’s done is not to rush anything,” said Mr. Oliver. “She’s saying, ‘Brexit means Brexit’ a lot, which you and I know means nothing. But she’s smart to evade. She has to let things calm down.”
That may be easier said than done. The prime minister, who served as home secretary for six years under Mr. Cameron in the Cabinet’s top domestic legal and security post, has little experience on the world stage.
The recent Group of 20 conference of representatives from industrial and emerging-market nations, hosted by China, was Mrs. May’s biggest chance so far to show her mettle in an event unrelated to Brexit.
But before the meeting, Mrs. May angered Beijing by putting the brakes on a Chinese-built nuclear power project in England, citing national security concerns.
As a result, her Chinese hosts gave her short shrift at the summit, relegating her to the second row in the official group photo. The British are used to their leaders standing front and center in those pictures. The British press took note of the snub.
Still, Mrs. May’s government approved the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station on Sept. 15, 10 days after the summit.
With the G-20 behind her, Mrs. May’s primary concern now is keeping her party satisfied as she consults with her colleagues and prepares for years of negotiations to separate Britain from the European Union. Complicating that task is strong sentiment in Scotland and elsewhere to stay with the union.
“She’s under pressure from within the Conservative Party,” said Mr. Oliver. Mr. Cameron “tried to settle the differences over Europe in the party with a referendum and failed.”
Perhaps in a bid to build up political capital among her Conservative base, one of Mrs. May’s first acts was to announce plans to expand grammar schools.
Pupils must sit for exams in order to enroll in the schools. Critics argue that grammar schools reinforce class boundaries, but Conservatives argue that the schools are a means of social mobility for the best and brightest students regardless of their parents’ wealth. Mrs. May is firmly behind the Tories.
“It’s certainly striking that this is one of the first few things she does,” said Mr. Bale. “It’s simply an attempt to tickle the underbelly of her own party’s right wing.”