Brought to heel: Theresa May's flamboyant sense of style contrasts with the rest of her character ©Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Theresa May: the stealth Prime Minister

She has clambered up the greasy pole in a cunning style of her own. Don't imagine she'll be easy to dislodge from the top
February 10, 2017
Theresa May: The Enigmatic Prime Minister by Rosa Prince (Biteback, £20) 

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Theresa May is the stealth prime minister. A year ago, few tipped her for the top. She was too old, too dry, too uncharismatic and far too reluctant to schmooze. Her victory was so unpredicted and unpredictable, her life story should be incorporated into the national curriculum as an example of the value of luck, self-belief and hard work. Throw in a political crisis, the absurd over-reach of rivals and a spooky calm under pressure, and you are close to working out how May won the prize.

It is six months since this long-serving, middle-of-the-road, cricket-loving Conservative—once characterised by William Hague as a “middle-order batsman”—launched her leadership campaign one morning and, before it was time to think about lunch, had become prime minister-in-waiting. Six months that have been increasingly punctuated by a low chorus suggesting, in the phrase so often applied to women, that she’s not quite up to it. Yet, even after that excruciating hand-holding snap with the wild and distrusted new American president, no one seriously thinks she is at risk.

That is not only because—in truth—Donald Trump grabbed her hand, and she extracted herself as fast as she decently could. Nor is it because she enjoys a giddying lead in the polls over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. Nor is it even because there is no obvious alternative PM surreptitiously marshalling support on the backbenches. It is, most fundamentally, because the course through the shoals and reefs of Brexit is still unknown. It is easy enough to criticise her. But the only coherent alternative to her newly revealed strategy of putting immigration controls ahead of prosperity and walking out of the single market (and probably the customs union, too) is the Liberal Democrat approach of denying the referendum conclusively settled the matter.

The distinctive aspect of May’s conservatism, perhaps even of something that will one day be called Mayism, is the way she has placed the value of identity and community ahead of the needs of the economy. In the name of social cohesion, she will control immigration even at the expense of relations with our largest trading partner: the European Union. In the face of every grim economic forecast, she has remained unflinchingly true to tighter border controls, although her other ideas about, say, reining in corporate greed, have crumbled away. She has captured the meaning of Brexit so that it means what she wants it to mean. Unelected by country or party, this “Remain” voter has made delivering for the 52 per cent of “Leave” voters her purpose, her mandate.

The daughter-of-the-vicarage concern for well being—in a sense that embraces more than purely material concerns—has been refracted through her past six years at the Home Office. It owes something, too, to growing up in rural Oxfordshire, Lark Rise to Candleford country; and something more, perhaps, to being a pupil in a grammar school when it turned into a comprehensive. Sometimes, May can look like the prime minister that the Daily Mail might have designed for its readers: the high-street heroine of the Brexit-supporting majority. The paper projects her as a 21st-century version of its greatest heroine, Margaret Thatcher, but any similarity begins and ends with the modest childhood, the ambition and the hard work. In many ways, with her intuitive concern for community, she feels more like a pre-Thatcherite figure, with her very traditional emphasis on community over commerce, albeit retooled these days to include a contemporary social liberalism. Her instincts are still more closely aligned to ordinary Tory members’ views than to any abstract or theoretical construct.

May’s political persona, to the extent that it is familiar, is defined by extreme caution, and reliance on a very small circle of allies. But there is another, more flamboyant, side of the public profile too: her style. In striking contrast to her manner of doing politics, she dresses to make an impact: primary colours, big necklaces, bright lipstick, as forceful in their message as her public demeanour is discreet. Her taste is not unerring, but it is entirely her own. This strikes me as an informative characteristic. Fashion is groupthink; style is something you do for yourself. With May, that is as true of her politics as it is of her wardrobe. It is just that it has been easier to overlook the integrity of her core beliefs and comment on her love of leather trousers, bold colours and, most famously, leopard-print kitten-heeled shoes.

The love affair with style began as a teenager, and a pair of lime-green platform shoes bought with money from her Saturday job. She describes them as her worst sartorial blunder; just like her dress and her politics now, the idea of the gawky teenager tottering on crazy platforms sits oddly with contemporaries’ recollections of the young Theresa as solemn, well-mannered and precocious: a textbook description of an only child.

Theresa Brasier was born just as the Suez catastrophe began, in October 1956. Her parents were Hubert and Zaidee: Hubert was a south London grammar-school boy, a High Church Anglican who studied at a theological college in Leeds with strong traditions of Christian socialism and public service among the poor. Many of his college contemporaries remained celibate; Hubert was 36 before he married, 10 years older than his bride, Zaidee Barnes, who still lived at home in Reading.

That this upbringing, which Prince says is “hardcore Anglo-Catholic,” still influences May is clear. It is there not only in her church-going; it also informs her sense of politics as a personal mission. One former political colleague describes her “huge moral force.” The influence of father on daughter, something that echoes Thatcher’s paternal relationship, extended beyond religion, and their shared passion for cricket. When May was growing up, her father was always on call—she and her mother came second to his parishioners’ needs. In some ways it sounds like the demands that weigh on a politician’s household. By the time she was a teenager, the vicar’s daughter was a signed-up Tory.

She was serious, and keen to get on—even skipping a year in school. There is said to be a family recording in which she stated her ambition to be the first woman prime minister. May went up to Oxford to read geography at St Hugh’s College. She met Philip, her first serious boyfriend, before she was 20; they were introduced by Benazir Bhutto at a student Conservative Association disco. They were married by her father in his parish church near Oxford, in the autumn of 1980. She was not quite 24.

By this time, Zaidee was already stricken with multiple sclerosis and in a wheelchair. Barely a year after the wedding, Hubert was killed in a car accident. A few months later, her mother died. May, shy and not naturally a networker, was forced to rely on Philip, and on her own resources. Her self-belief and her sense of resolution can only have been strengthened by the impact of losing both parents so quickly. And her stoicism was on display when, in a rare instance of acknowledging her childlessness was not her choice, she said “you accept the hand that life deals you.”

Perhaps the experience strengthened, too, the focus on the job in hand that is such a striking feature of the events of 11th July last year. May was about to launch her official campaign when she received a call from Andrea Leadsom conceding the leadership race. Leadsom wanted to announce the news herself, so asked May to keep it a secret until she did. May honoured that wish to the letter and told none of the small team of intimates who were with her—who included not only her right-hand woman, Fiona Hill, but also her husband—what had just happened. Instead, she stuck to her schedule, delivering her speech as planned. It set out for the first time the full extent of her distance from David Cameron’s project, and introduced the divisive but brilliant Liberal-turned-Unionist politician Joseph Chamberlain as her model statesman.

Only after the speech, when the news was leaking out, did she tell her team: after a week of abysmal misjudgements from Leadsom, culminating in the assertion that motherhood gave her a stake in the future of the country that the childless May could never have, she was leaving May alone on the field.

At the age of 59 (10 years older than Cameron), after a fortnight of bizarre events that left more corpses in its wake than a Shakespeare tragedy, May was prime minister-elect. A decade after many thought she had peaked, she triumphed in a contest that was slated to be between two glamorous men: George Osborne and Boris Johnson. Instead, each in turn fell into the cracks in the ground opened up by Brexit. She emerged from the Home Office, dazzling Conservative MPs like Eliza Doolittle off to the ball, propelled by the long-forgotten but now newly compelling attributes of common sense and grace under fire.

That is the first thing to emerge from Rosa Prince’s new biography: it was not May who suddenly changed, it was the whole political battlefield. And in that moment of shock and grief last summer, the traditional virtues that she had always embodied with the stubborn assurance of her cricketing hero Geoffrey Boycott, assumed an unexpected appeal. Yet it has sometimes felt, in her first six months as prime minister, that the woman in the colour-block dress who is now at home in Downing Street is somehow not the same May who had been Home Secretary since 2010. How could the angry, Brussels-bashing speech that she delivered at the Tory Party conference in October have been made by a referendum “Remainer”? How could this advocate of a sharing society, limits to executive pay and workers on boards have sat in Cabinet for the previous six years nodding through punitive laws against trade unions and swingeing cuts in benefits? How could this embodiment of old-fashioned English values appear enthusiastic about getting close to the vulgar New York playboy who has taken up at the White House?


Not all of the answers to those questions are given in Prince’s biography. But there are unchanging themes. There is a consistency to her desire to be in control. She is hostile to anything that challenges that control—in particular, but not only, the European Court of Human Rights. You can see this run in a direct line from the story she once told at a party conference about being unable to deport an illegal migrant because he had a cat—a story based on what we now would call alternative facts—through to her long and ultimately successful campaigns to deport Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada to face terrorism charges abroad.

Latterly, her hostility to threats to British sovereignty has been transferred to the Court of Justice of the EU. Once again, in disregard of the economics, she insists that laws applied in Britain should be made in Britain by British judges, and will not deviate from that position even if it kills all hope of a formal trade deal, which could compel the UK to submit to EU law. As she said explicitly in her Lancaster House speech in January, “the public expect to be able to hold their governments to account very directly, and as a result supranational institutions as strong as those created by the EU sit very uneasily in relation to our political history and way of life.” For “the public,” it seems safe to substitute “Theresa May.”

The power to make law is an inalienable matter; so too is control of borders. Security comes before liberty, and she can never—as deputy prime minister Nick Clegg discovered in the coalition years—grasp that ever-greater powers taken in the name of security, for example, powers to gather and store communications, might undermine the freedoms they are introduced to safeguard. But there is a flip side: she respects the rule of law. Her record at the Home Office is marked by visceral anger on behalf of people who have been betrayed by the state or its agencies—the Hillsborough victims, Stephen Lawrence’s family after it emerged they had been spied on after their son’s murder, victims of domestic abuse let down by police—these are groups who have cause to appreciate May’s uncompromising defence of them.

This is a far cry from the savvy, focus-group metropolitanism of the Cameroons that May came to find so meretricious. It is partly a matter of character; but it is also, as Prince points out, because there is a gulf between politicians who ascend to power through contacts and serial jobs in ministerial offices (David Cameron’s first job in politics was allegedly secured by a call from Buckingham Palace), and the rest—the MPs who come in by the tradesman’s entrance, weathered by years in local government and the experience of fighting unwinnable seats.

As a young married couple in the 1980s the Mays, both working in well-paid City jobs, settled in the gentrifying fringes of Wimbledon, south London. Political pairs—think of the Blairs, Tony and Cherie—often choose one to fight for a seat and the other to earn the household keep. Early on it was clear to friends that the choice had been made, and that it would be Theresa who went into politics—even though Philip, unlike his wife, had taken one traditional step on the ladder by being elected president of the Oxford Union.

Thus it was Theresa May who in 1986 became a councillor, and ultimately deputy leader of the south London borough of Merton. After her own experience at a grammar school, a comprehensive, and fleetingly a private school, she was a natural candidate to chair its education committee as it re-organised its school system. Her caution saved the council perhaps £75m, after she resisted a plan to mortgage its housing stock just before the crash at the end of the 1980s. She fought two hopeless seats—North West Durham in 1992 and a by-election in Barking in 1994 that Margaret Hodge won—before being picked for Maidenhead, which proved safe even in the Tory Waterloo of 1997.

Sometime between becoming an MP and the party’s third defeat in 2005, May woke up to feminism. Once again, practical experience—this time envying the solidarity and support networks of the 101 women MPs Labour had elected in their 1997 landslide against the experience of being one of just 13 on the Tory benches—influenced her. Then, as chair of the Conservatives in 2002, she told a stunned party conference that they were seen as the “nasty party.” She could see the distance the Tories still had to travel to recover in popular esteem, but she learned the hard lesson that knocking the product wins no friends among its producers. (It was at this time that, having voted against the repeal of clause 28, she also changed her mind about gay rights).
"Sometime between becoming an MP in 1997 and the third Tory defeat in 2005, May woke up to feminism and gay rights"
In 2005, she seriously considered standing for the party leadership as it embarked on yet another contest without a woman candidate. But she established she had close to zero support and, almost at the eleventh hour, declared for the moderniser Cameron. Five years earlier, May had come up with the idea to build an organisation to support women candidates. Now she sold Cameron on it and, with Anne Jenkin, founded Women2Win. Days after Cameron took over, Central Office provided an A-list of candidates to constituency selection committees; May’s organisation had ensured that half of that list were women. At a stroke, scores of ambitious men were deprived of what they considered their legitimate future as Tory MPs for safe seats. No one could accuse May of currying favour with the activists.

But the transformation of the party that resulted has been extraordinary. A fifth of Tory MPs are now female; 30 per cent of May’s first cabinet are women, many of whom began their Commons careers with support from Women2Win. In other words, May played a vital role in bringing the party into the 21st century.

All the same, there seemed little future for May in Cameron’s Tory Party. A low-key suburban woman in her fifties had no place in the metropolitan glossiness of the Notting Hill set. In 2010, she had been quietly shadowing welfare, and it was only after she benefited from her former protégé Chris Grayling’s eve of election campaign blunder on gay rights, she unexpectedly found herself Home Secretary in the coalition. Few thought it was more than an interim appointment. Certainly, no one would have anticipated that she would emerge stronger from Whitehall’s legendary graveyard of ambition, a department that had just gobbled up and spat out four Labour Home Secretaries in as many years.

Prince expertly charts her course into the record books as the longest-serving Home Secretary in a century. Battles with the European Court of Human Rights fed hostility to Europe, although not all its institutions. She came to value common security initiatives like the European Arrest Warrant, and now intends to protect them from Brexit. The unsuccessful fight to protect her departmental budget against 20 per cent cuts today leaves her deaf to the desperate appeals for more NHS funding.

More puzzling was her unflinching loyalty to Cameron’s net migration target (wrongly attributed by Prince to Damian Green: it came from Cameron himself) that fed the fateful sense that Brussels had disempowered Westminster, and Westminster was disempowering the voters. Prince describes an extraordinary row with an incandescent George Osborne protesting at the way that businessmen from China—on whose investment his economic plans depended—were treated by border officials. May’s distaste for the Cameroons now took on a personal edge.

Another May emerges from this stage in her career. Unclubbable and seemingly shy, she builds a team to whom she stays extraordinarily loyal, and they to her. It is not only many of the current cabinet who formerly worked for her at the Home Office. The most intimate members of her Downing Street team, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, are both legendary tigers in her cause, prepared to sacrifice anything for her: Hill had to resign in 2014, collateral damage in the conflict between Michael Gove and May over alleged extremism in Birmingham schools. These are people who share her instincts and her brand of Conservatism. They are the people who now get the blame for the widely reported dysfunction between No 10 and Whitehall.

But she has become adept at courting newspapers, most particularly the Daily Mail. It was the Mail to whom she revealed in 2013 that, rather than dieting for a leadership bid as the gossip speculated, she had been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. It was the Mail who hailed her courage as she described the business of eating properly and coping with insulin injections in the middle of a hectic day. The cool relationship with the Cameroons grew chillier in inverse proportion to such PR successes.

Then there is the appetite for vengeance, first revealed in the long-running row with the Police Federation. The dressing down she gave the organisation’s conference in 2014, when she accused them of showing contempt for the public, was repayment for a humiliation they inflicted on her in a protest at budget cuts at their conference in 2011. Fast forward to 2016, and a reign of terror that followed her arrival in No 10, during which Cameron’s reputation, Michael Gove’s career and Osborne’s prospects were brutally put to the sword. If Angela Merkel really did stand her up at the Malta summit in January, she had better watch her back.

It is important to resist the sense that what has happened was always going to happen. With hindsight, it is easy to see what a good match May’s instincts are for the mood of the Brexiteers—how she, the moderniser who remade the Tory Party, is the same person who is standing proudly beneath the Union flag on the front of the Daily Mail. Along with the champion of the cause of women in politics, there always co-existed an authoritarian defender of British sovereignty and identity.

May has been prime minister for an extraordinary six months. No biography can yet be anything more than a sketch of the story so far. Prince’s book is readable, but hardly a settled verdict. There is too much on the horizon to anticipate either success or failure, or to create a definitive picture of the strengths and weaknesses of this woman on whom so much now rides. In this fractured new world of Brexit and Trump, only a fool would predict what will happen next. But Theresa May’s career so far suggests it would be a bad mistake to underestimate her.