Frivolities irk woman of steel
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