Now we know who our next Prime Minister is, we’d like to know the answers to what happens next. Political journalist Rachel Sylvester – who has met Theresa May many times – predicts what we can expect from our new leader
Standing outside the famous black door to Number 10 last Wednesday, on becoming Prime Minister, Theresa May promised to lead a Government for “every one of us” not just for the “privileged few”. It was a carefully worded speech, aimed at healing the gaping wounds exposed by the EU referendum. Rhetoric that – despite her being our first female Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher – was a signal that she is determined not to be as divisive as her predecessor.
Three weeks ago, no-one could have predicted May would have the keys to Downing Street, not even May herself. Nor had I believed that the Tory leadership contest would be ended within days of an interview I had conducted with her rival Andrea Leadsom, who provoked fury by suggesting to me she would be a better PM because she had children.
May’s inaugural speech had been written in her mind for months and even years – a direct continuation of her moderniser’s warning to the Tories back at the 2002 conference when, as newly appointed chairwoman, she admonished that they were still seen as the “nasty party”. Holding true to that vision, last week, May promised to fight against the “burning injustice” of class, race and gender inequality, insisting she would govern on behalf of those struggling to make ends meet rather than a wealthy elite. Her speech proved she saw the Brexit vote as an opportunity to reform more than our relationship with Europe.
The message from this grammar school girl – in intention at least – was that the era of the Tory elite is over. Instead of the party of the rich she wants a party of the people. Politically, she is marching her tanks firmly onto Labour territory – her straight-down-the-middle politics, hard line on bankers’ bonuses and opposition to rising energy bills is reminiscent of David Miliband and Tony Blair. She promises to speak for the “ordinary working-class family” who struggle to stay afloat. She is also seizing the active language of the Brexiteers, promising to let the voters “take back control”. For May though, a vicar’s daughter, addressing the imbalances in society is also a moral mission. The question is now: will she be able to implement her words – or will she get bogged down in battling Brussels or accusations of betrayal from Tory backbenchers?
May’s early days
So where has our new PM come from? An only child, May is hard-working, diligent and meticulous. She grew up in rural Oxfordshire, part of the baby boomer generation, an only child in a family that revolved around the demands of her father Reverend Hubert Brasier’s parishioners. She learned early on that she was always “on show” and has retained a puritanical streak throughout her adult life. In person she is much warmer than her public image suggests, though she is never frivolous. Her professional determination may come from an underlying sadness in her personal life. Her father was killed in a car crash a few years after she graduated from Oxford University with a degree in geography in 1977, and her mother, who had MS, died the following year. She has described her husband Philip, a banker – to whom she was introduced by her friend Benazir Bhutto, former Pakistani Prime Minister – as her “rock” during that period. He is intelligent yet quiet, and shuns the limelight. The only personal glimpse of their life together was revealed in a recent interview where May hinted at them coming to terms with the fact that they could not have children. “Of course we were both affected by it,” May said. “You see friends who have grown-up children, but you accept the hand that life deals you.”
After graduating, May worked at the Bank of England and, after two unsuccessful attempts to enter the House of Commons, she was elected MP for Maidenhead in 1997. Having most recently proved herself as the longest-serving home secretary since 1892, May leaves nothing to chance. Known by colleagues as a notorious control freak, May is always on top of policy detail, reading papers late into the night and irritating junior ministers with her micro-managing and inflexibility. She will have to learn to delegate if she is to succeed as Prime Minister. Yet she does have something vital: the respect of her colleagues. “She is controlling, but she gets things done,” says one former Liberal Democrat Home Office minister.
During her six-year tenure at the Home Office, she sat in on the decision to go to war in Libya in 2011, dealt with nationwide riots and looting later the same year, and chaired an emergency Cobra meeting in the Prime Minister’s absence following the 2013 murder of soldier Lee Rigby.
However, May’s record in the role has been mixed. One of her proudest achievements was seeing the radical preacher Abu Quatada deported in 2013, but she failed to meet the Tories’ manifesto promise to bring net migration down to the tens of thousands – she insists Britain has control of its borders, despite the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics which show net migration is at 333,000 a year. May also infuriated civil liberties campaigners, including then-Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, by taking a hard line on security with policies such as the so-called Snoopers’ Charter, which requires internet and mobile phone service providers to keep records of all messages and web histories for up to a year in case the information is needed for police investigations.
The opposite of a populist, Game Of Thrones-watching Barack Obama or ice hockey-loving Canadian president Justin Trudeau, May is the more serious breed of politician. I once wrote a column comparing David Cameron to vacuous supermodel Derek Zoolander, and suggested May could be what the fashionistas in the movie call “Norm Core – bland, risk-averse, sensible and authentic”. One aide emailed to say he loved the idea, although he added: “Not sure if the Home Secretary will get the Zoolander references”.
May’s USP is her diligence and pragmatism, a welcome counterpoint to the empty soundbites and ego contest of the EU referendum campaign. Political insiders describe her as a “cat who walks alone” because she doesn’t have a set or frequent the House of Commons bar and can’t stand fools. Interviewing her, I have always been struck by the fact that the policies she is proudest of are those that seek to right social injustices – from modern slavery and human trafficking to female genital mutilation and the racist use of stop and search. “To me it’s about looking across the board and ensuring there’s fairness and justice,” she once told me. “I don’t think that’s a contradiction in the Home Office, you can be tough where you need to be but also look after the most vulnerable.” Whether she is attacking police corruption, taking on traditionalists in the Tory Party or launching an inquiry into institutional child abuse, I have seen an instinctively cautious politician who is willing to take risks when she is driven by a personal sense of right or wrong.
“I’m not an old boy,” she says, a direct jibe at her predecessor David Cameron. Her relationship with him was cordial rather than convivial and May was at times viewed with exasperation by the previous Downing Street administration because of her refusal to compromise. Her leadership style will be “proper and traditional” with decisions made in cabinet. Though May has a temper, “She doesn’t throw things like Gordon Brown, she becomes icy when displeased,” according to one MP. One old university friend says: “Theresa has never changed. What you see is what you get, there’s no hidden side to her. She’s manically hard working, but she’s very good at her job.” Although critics call her an ice maiden, she can also be kind, always making a point of speaking to an MP’s spouse rather than working the room when she does constituency dinners.
“I’ve never compared myself to Margaret Thatcher,” May says, pre-empting the question on every tabloid journalist’s lips. “I’m not someone who naturally looks to role models. I try to do the best job I can.” In her mission to make Britain a better place, our new Prime Minister has an enormous task on her hands. Here’s where she stands on the issues that matter to Stylist readers.
Theresa May loathes “tokenism” but she has always promoted women, supporting what cabinet colleague Anna Soubry calls the “proper sisterhood” that she has built within the party. As Tory chairman, she ensured more women were selected to be MPs by introducing an A-list for candidates. At the end of her time as home secretary, the heads of the National Crime Agency, National Police Chiefs’ Council and Independent Police Complaints Commission were all women – an extraordinary achievement. The gender pay gap was one of the “burning injustices” she mentioned in her speech on the steps of Number 10 but she has yet to reveal how she will tackle the chasm.
May has acted strongly on psychological and domestic abuse as home secretary. She created a new offence of “coercive and controlling behaviour” which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison, introduced two new stalking offences in 2012 and criminalised forced marriage in 2014.
Racial and sexual equality After the discovery that black people were seven times more likely to be stopped by police than white people, May reformed police use of stop and search powers, requiring officers to record whether an arrest is made. When it was revealed one in seven stops may still be unlawful, May suspended the 13 worst offending forces from using the stop and search scheme. A long-standing Tory moderniser, she voted in favour of gay marriage, but against greater adoption rights for same sex couples in 2002.
This is one of the least clear aspects of her Government – although the appointment of Philip Hammond as chancellor indicates she will take a “safety first” approach. He is unlikely to loosen the purse strings after the austere Osborne years, but May has said she’ll tackle corporate irresponsibility and so-called “crony capitalism”, promising to give workers a place on company boards and make shareholder votes on executive pay binding, not advisory.
Europe and Brexit
Although she supported Remain on security grounds, May took a back seat in the campaign and is understood to be sceptical towards the EU. Although she says “Brexit is Brexit”, she has not defined what that means in practice. With good relationships around Europe, she will strike a hard bargain but she will be at the mercy of other leaders who may not be keen to help out us Brits now. After all the macho posturing of the referendum, May will, no doubt, be hoping a calm chat with Angela Merkel can get a deal.
May has pursued tough policies on immigration but has been unable to control numbers at the Home Office because of EU free movement rules. Now she has to change those, but she will be wary of doing anything that will damage the British economy. She may want to retain free movement of labour, allowing EU nationals to come and work here (but not get residency rights) in return for access to the single market. She knows the public support for Brexit means something serious has to change on immigration but she is yet to reveal what she will do. Watch this space.
Additional words: Zoë Beaty
Photography: Rex, PA, Mirrorpix, Getty