Endearing awkwardness might not be a coveted trait in British Prime Ministers, which makes Theresa May’s discomfort in the full media glare all the more striking. But behind the smiling façade, the new Prime Minister is not afraid to follow her own path…
Words: Annabelle Dickson
On the day her victory in the race to become Conservative leader was secured Britain’s press photographers demanded Mrs May’s husband give his wife a celebratory kiss, as they stood outside the Houses of Parliament.
It was a rare spontaneous show of affection that ran on almost every front page. She bashfully leant back as her husband, Philip, obliged banks of paparazzi who clamoured for the tender moment. But like much of Mrs May’s tenure to date, it is safer not to judge a book by its cover. Just like the premier’s bright coats and fancy footwear could mask her seriousness, her gaucheness in obliging modern day media masks her steely self-confidence.
The vicar’s daughter has surprised a world waiting to see if Britain would actually go through with Brexit since she moved into Number 10 in July this year.
After campaigning for remain, however reluctantly, a ‘soft Brexit’ which favoured free trade was the assumption. But in a move which has cemented her popularity in her own party, she has re-written her part in the referendum campaign with an almost evangelical insistence that Britain must fully leave the European Union, will start the formal process by the end of March, and will secure immigration controls.
She knows that words and big ideas are the easy part. Dealing with the hostility and machinations of the Brussels machine is another matter. Frustrated former cabinet colleagues are split over whether her sometime unyielding manner is a strength or weakness.
Looking at what Boris Johnson is, you can see what Theresa May is not
Her campaign team were thinking of getting mugs bearing the inscription ‘bloody difficult woman’ in tribute to veteran Tory Ken Clarke’s candid verdict on Mrs May – broadcast when he thought the cameras were off. Meanwhile, close friends and colleagues point to her ‘wicked sense of humour’ away from the cameras, if not her predecessor’s natural ease. But one MP told me: ‘She can’t do jokes yet. It is all about timing. If you can’t, better not’.
However, a Boris Johnson broadside at the autumn Conservative party conference brought down the house with its truth and near cruelty as she identified the flaw in the character of her main political rival over the last half decade.
Her mocking of the foreign secretary’s inability to stay on message represented a shift of power in their uneasy relationship. It was not so much a joke, as an assertion of her authority. In many ways looking at what Boris Johnson is, you can see what Mrs May is not. While Mr Johnson has a desire to be liked, Mrs May is not a people pleaser.
David Cameron would go out of his way to be helpful in an interview – often giving that soundbite that got him a headline, or into trouble. Mrs May is measured. She will say what she has come to say, and no more.
Yet far from making her unpopular among colleagues, her take it or leave it attitude has (for now) won her respect and loyalty among her supporters while her adversaries have, in the main, been deposed.
She has had years of being patronised by the Camerons. She is trying to put forward ministers who look and sound normal and to move on from the “chumocracy” of public school boys and girls
‘She has had years of being patronised by the Camerons. She is trying to put forward ministers who look and sound normal and to move on from the “chumocracy” of public school boys and girls’, one veteran MP says.
And unusually for many politicians, Mrs May does not mix business with her personal life: ‘She takes the business side very seriously,’ a long-serving colleague who has spent years on the green benches with Mrs May says. ‘Philip [her husband] is very important to her. He has been a very successful man in his own right. They have friends who are nothing to do with politics and her political friends are those who have served alongside her in government, has always respected and are not a threat.’
Colleagues like Karen Bradley and Justine Greening have been promoted to cabinet level, and she has brought her ‘brain’, the Rasputin-like bearded Nick Timothy, with her from the Home Office. The ruthless change of personnel at the top table since the summer has also led to an uncompromising change of policy – from grammar schools to fiscal targets.
A lack of obvious ideology is perhaps what has given the new premier the ability to be so flexible. While her ‘hard Brexit’ stance has appeased the Tory right, her surprising desire for more government is the antithesis of traditional conservatism. Early indications suggest that she will not shy away from taking on big business, in a style more accustomed to a centre-left Labour leader than a Conservative one.
In her short time in charge she has criticised energy companies over their tariffs, pledging to ‘set the market right’, taken aim at a ‘household name’ refusing to work with the authorities to fight terrorism, believed to be Facebook after it failed to pass on information which could have prevented the murder of Lee Rigby. She has already hit out at ‘international companies and their accountants that treat tax laws as an optional extra’, declaring: ‘If you’re a tax-dodger, we’re coming after you.’
And big talk of global Britain is tinged with nationalist language, calls for a ‘fully sovereign independent country’ and warnings to businesses about taking on more British-born staff.
But while she has read the analysis of why people voted Brexit and decided on a rhetoric of rapprochement to the disaffected who don’t feel they have shared in the spoils of globalisation, she seems unconcerned about the suppressed disquiet about her ‘airbrushing’ the 48% who voted to remain from history.
While she has read the analysis of why people voted Brexit and decided on a rhetoric of rapprochement to the disaffected, she seems unconcerned about the suppressed disquiet about her ‘airbrushing’ the 48%
Her pitch is to middle England, not a pro-European London which lurched leftwards when it selected Sadiq Khan to be its elected mayor earlier this year.
Hard graft has been the key to her successes as a cabinet minister and even now she still goes through her red boxes late into the night. But at her first party conference as leader where her presence was so much in demand, she still took time at the parties to stop and chat to old friends, embracing the women who she had worked with to widen the diversity of the party.
While Boris Johnson and other leadership rivals ambitions may have been more overt, her appetite for the top job has been just as strong. One MP characterised her as a ‘crocodile circling in shallow water’, watching the men fight each other to defeat before she emerged.
For now Mrs May has charmed her activists, but whether the country and European leaders on which our future relationships with Europe depend have been captivated is still untested and uncharted territory.
Annabelle Dickson is Group Political Editor at Archant Media Group