Theresa May’s first bid for her party’s leadership was a low-key affair. It might have escaped detection altogether had she not dropped her guard in a radio interview when asked about the contest. “Let’s wait and see what happens when the autumn comes and the candidates actually declare our … themselves.” It was the summer of 2005 and May was the Tory party’s shadow minister for the family. Michael Howard was its lame-duck leader, beaten in the general election by Tony Blair and sticking around only to hold the ring for a succession battle that would be won by David Cameron.
May abandoned her campaign early, having failed to drum up enough support among MPs. There would be no reason to recall it had her ambition stopped there. But that one misspoken pronoun was a periscope revealing the presence of a battle-class political submarine advancing stealthily through Westminster’s unpredictable waters.
May has not cultivated inscrutability just to thwart her biographer, but that is a side-effect. Rosa Prince’s book, speedily assembled for publication soon after Downing Street changed hands, is a valiant trawl through the new prime minister’s record, but there is only so much that a hasty investigation can reveal about a politician who has spent years fortifying her privacy. Prince’s narrative energy never flags. In a short volume she covers May’s humble ancestry (both grandmothers were domestic servants); her vicarage childhood (during which, as the clergyman’s daughter, she learned always to be on her best behaviour); schools (a mix of grammar and comprehensive, instilling a lifelong prejudice in favour of the former); Oxford University (where she dabbled in politics without arousing great expectations); marriage to loyal companion and political consigliere Philip (but no children – a source of chagrin that May resisted discussing in public until crass insinuation by rivals dragged it into the open); a stint in the City and, finally, steady elevation up the Tory party apparatus.
The author mostly conceals disappointment at her subject’s scandal-proof caution but the subtitle gives the game away: “The Enigmatic Prime Minister” speaks of puzzles unsolved. Old interviews in which May has digressed from politics reveal a formulaic method of sticking to “safe” topics – shoes, cricket and baking. “Read one after another, they are strikingly repetitive,” Prince writes in mourning of hours spent scouring old cuttings for colour.
May’s ascent doesn’t make gripping reading, but since she has reached the summit of power, the story is worth telling. Everything required for a three-dimensional portrait of the prime minister is in this book, but the insight comes flat-packed for efficient shipping, like Ikea furniture: the material is there but it needs assembly.
We read about May’s apprenticeship as a councillor in the London borough of Merton, from which time colleagues report a stalwart work ethic, lack of sociability and thinly disguised impatience to advance to greater things. It is the same when May reaches parliament in 1997. Friends testify to the existence of a private, fun-loving May with a dry sense of humour but none has a great anecdote to prove it.
The details of May’s mundane early career are interesting chiefly because of the historical context. Here is someone who was chasing selection as a parliamentary candidate at a time when the Tory party was unravelling. Black Wednesday in 1992 had shredded the economic credibility of John Major’s government and factional warfare over Europe was thwarting any prospect of a political recovery. Conservatism was deeply unfashionable. The Tories looked sleazy and haggard. Blair was about to be carried to power on a swing of the generational pendulum towards slick metropolitan modernity; it was the age of Cool Britannia.
Cameron’s coterie grated – May had toiled to get to the top; the Cameroons seemed to have landed there in one helicopter
May cannot have been oblivious to this incoming cultural tide but there is no evidence that she understood it or knew people who swam with it. This sets her apart from a younger cadre – the Cameron and George Osborne generation – who leapfrogged over her on the road to power. They felt Blairism had captured an irreversible public mood and calibrated their politics to the style and substance of New Labour.
Theresa May with David Cameron at the Conservative Party conference in 2009. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
The contrast with Cameron reveals more about May’s politics than any battle with Labour or Ukip. Prince depicts resentment that built up as May felt excluded from the gilded clique that captured the party when Howard stood down. Class plays a part here, as it always does in British politics. The privileged Notting Hill sensibilities of Cameron’s private school-educated coterie grated against May’s more orthodox small-town Toryism. She had toiled to get to the top; the Cameroons all seemed to have landed there in one helicopter. It is hardly surprising that she sacked most of them when appointing her first cabinet. May’s submarine had ample storage space for grudges.
That doesn’t make the prime minister an enemy of modernisation. Her contribution to the rehabilitation of the Conservative brand is unarguable. In 2002, she famously rebuked conference delegates for allowing themselves to be construed as “the nasty party”. Her views on gay rights shifted enough over the years that she was able to support equal marriage as home secretary. She was sufficiently irked by the patronising and patriarchal habits of Tory local associations that she took an instrumental role in Women2Win – a highly effective organisation supporting aspiring female candidates with a view to reversing parliament’s stubborn gender imbalance.
May has been unafraid to challenge some of the most stultifying reactionary traits of her colleagues. But she also has a deep attachment to the institutions and social networks of grassroots Toryism. They have been a surrogate family to an only child who lost both parents shortly after graduating from university. The party is something “she loves to its bones”, Prince writes. That was never said of Cameron, and it is a reason why many members distrusted him and embrace his successor with devotion. It is also why May is untainted in the eyes of her party by her support for the remain side during the EU referendum. She was merely showing loyalty to the leader at the time, while every unguarded mannerism radiated sympathy with the Eurosceptic instincts of the rank and file. No one doubts the fullness of her conversion to the Brexit cause and few Tories seem to query her judgment in the enactment of a rupture from Europe far more severe than anything advertised by the leave campaign.
May has the complete confidence of the party grassroots because she is one of them. She has stuffed the envelopes and delivered the leaflets. She has mud on her boots from time served in the campaigning infantry, while the officer-class Old Etonian before her had his feet up on a desk miles away from the frontline. May embodies a tradition of volunteer provincial Toryism at its best and worst. She channels its spirit of redoubtable self-reliance and charitable works. She projects its starchy no-nonsense manners and moral code that is equal parts Anglican faith, Middle England “common sense” and nostalgia for a lost world of deference and ethnic homogeneity.
May comes across in Prince’s account as intelligent but intellectually incurious; determined to absorb the data required to compute a course of action, but lacking agility and imagination. Her desire to serve the country is undeniable, although she appears to have conflated that task long ago with a personal mission to lead the Conservative party. That narrowness of purpose is one reason why her story is impressive, yet uninspiring. She has outmanoeuvred powerful rivals, circumnavigated institutional sexism and worked hard to become prime minister. No one doubts her dedication to a cause, yet very few could confidently say what the cause has really been. And to her biographer’s frustration, those who might know aren’t telling.
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