Frivoli­ties irk woman of steel

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Do­minic Law­son

hose im­pa­tient with Theresa May’s al­leged se­cre­tive­ness over her ne­go­ti­at­ing po­si­tion on Bri­tain’s exit from the Euro­pean Union, and the pe­cu­liarly opaque na­ture of some of her pub­lic state­ments, will gain no com­fort — but per­haps some un­der­stand­ing — from the scene that opens Rosa Prince’s bi­og­ra­phy of Bri­tain’s new-ish prime min­is­ter.

At 10am on July 11 last year, the then home sec­re­tary was pre­par­ing to launch her cam­paign to suc­ceed the quit­ting David Cameron as leader of the Con­ser­va­tive Party with a speech at a Birm­ing­ham con­fer­ence cen­tre.

But as she went through some last-minute prepa­ra­tions with her hus­band, Philip, her close aide Fiona Hill and her friend and for­mer cab­i­net col­league Liam Fox, a call came in for May from An­drea Lead­som, her only re­main­ing chal­lenger. May left the an­te­room to take the call, came back and, say­ing noth­ing, went out to de­liver her speech as planned.

About 1½ hours later, Lead­som de­clared she was quit­ting the lead­er­ship race — and, as a re­sult, May would be party leader and Prime Min­is­ter. Only then did May tell her hus­band and clos­est aides that Lead­som had com­mu­ni­cated her in­ten­tion in that call, but had asked that her ri­val say noth­ing un­til it was an­nounced.

As Prince ob­serves, it says a great deal about May’s char­ac­ter, her iron self-con­trol, her sense of hon­our — and her poker-faced opac­ity — that she be­trayed not the slight­est sign of elation at the un­ex­pect­edly sud­den at­tain­ment of the dream she had nur­tured, ap­par­ently since a school­girl, to be prime min­is­ter of Bri­tain.

By the end of the book, one re­alises just how dif­fi­cult it must have been for May to have hid­den this news from her Philip. It is not just that they have clearly had a very lov­ing re­la­tion­ship, al­most from the mo­ment they met as fel­low stu­dent Con­ser­va­tive mem­bers of the Ox­ford Union po­lit­i­cal de­bat­ing so­ci­ety.

Whereas most other am­bi­tious MPs would by choice spend din­ners be­fore votes in the House of Com­mons gos­sip­ing with col­leagues, May pre­ferred to spend them at a quiet ta­ble for two with her hus­band. And as Prince also re­veals, Philip joined her team in as­sist­ing her prepa­ra­tions for her first prime min­is­ter’s ques- tions, and was charged with man­ning the phones to raise sup­port dur­ing her brief lead­er­ship cam­paign.

Part of the ex­cep­tion­ally de­pen­dent na­ture of her mar­i­tal re­la­tion­ship prob­a­bly stems from the fact that the Mays were not able to have chil­dren, part from the fact that she has no sib­lings, and part — most poignantly — from the fact that her par­ents both died when she was in her 20s and Philip brought her through what must have been the worst time of her life. Al­though, hav­ing writ­ten that, I wouldn’t rule out the pos­si­bil­ity of May cop­ing on her own with such be­reave­ments even if she hadn’t had Philip to lean on. Mar­garet Thatcher might have been the Iron Lady, but Theresa May is purest steel.

Steel is gen­er­ally de­scribed as cold, and that el­e­ment also emerges in Prince’s book. Al­though women are said to be the more so­cially aware of the sexes, it is the men in pol­i­tics who have found May’s re­mote­ness a prob­lem. Even one of her ad­mir­ers, the for­mer party chair­man Eric Pick­les, says: “I’m not sure any­one has ever en­tirely got to know her ... she’s not even slightly club­bable.”

Pick­les, by the way, is one of the very few sources to have given Prince some in­ter­est­ing new ma­te­rial, be­yond what the au­thor has gut- ted from what has al­ready been said and writ­ten about May. Per­haps this is all that can be ex­pected from such a rapidly pro­duced book. Prince did a sim­i­lar quick turn­around to pub­lish the first bi­og­ra­phy of Labour leader Jeremy Cor­byn. And credit where credit is due, this is the first bi­og­ra­phy of the sec­ond woman to lead the Con­ser­va­tive Party.

If there is an­other thing her sub­ject has in com­mon with the last woman to lead the Tory party — an in­sti­tu­tion that tra­di­tion­ally was run along the lines of a gen­tle­man’s club — it is May’s ab­sence of small talk. Anne Jenkin, who worked closely with May on per­suad­ing more women to try to be­come Tory MPs, tells Prince: “You can’t re­ally have that chitchat be­cause her time is too pre­cious, she’s too se­ri­ous, and she would feel I was wast­ing her time.”

From this, one be­gins to see just how ir­ri­tat­ing, and even friv­o­lous, May must have found Cameron’s so-called Not­ting Hill set, where pol­i­tics and so­cial­is­ing at times seemed to merge into one ex­tended house party. This in turn might ex­plain the ruth­less way in which May de­fen­es­trated the en­tire Cameron set on be­com­ing PM, spec­tac­u­larly so in the case of Ge­orge Os­borne, whom she sacked as chan­cel­lor rather than al­low to re­sign — and by some ac­counts ac­com­pa­nied this with a lec­ture on the need for “hu­mil­ity” in pub­lic life.

If she did de­liver Os­borne such a homily, one might see it as the legacy of her fa­ther, Hu­bert Brasier, a high-church Angli­can vicar. Ac­cord­ing to Prince it was in de­bates with her fa­ther that May dis­cov­ered her po­lit­i­cal vo­ca­tion. The book re­peats the claim of her cousin Andy Par­rott that while in sixth form May de­clared she wanted to be the first woman prime min­is­ter (some­thing she has de­nied).

Prince also records how, in a mock elec­tion at school at the time of the real one in Fe­bru­ary 1974, the Con­ser­va­tive May lost out to the Lib­eral Ros­alind Hicks-Greene. The lat­ter was a pop­u­lar head girl, but she later rem­i­nisced: “It was not hard to beat Theresa as she was not very charis­matic.”

Prince’s book re­flects that set­tled view of its sub­ject, be­ing both im­mensely thor­ough and de­void of sur­prises. Af­ter Cameron’s “es­say cri­sis” style of run­ning the coun­try, that’s prob­a­bly a com­bi­na­tion most vot­ers find wel­come. is a jour­nal­ist and au­thor.

Theresa May ar­rives at 10 Down­ing Street with her hus­band, Philip

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