She may lack a grand political vision, but in a time of national crisis, her calm consistency and sense of moral duty may be just what is called for.
For a woman on the verge of running the country, Theresa May has seemed almost preternaturally calm over the past few days.
“She’s basically the same as ever; quite relaxed and cheerful. There’s no sense of the prison shades falling,” says a longstanding friend who has observed her closely during the campaign. But then, unlike Andrea Leadsom, seemingly badly shaken by a single weekend of hostile media coverage, May knew better than anyone what to expect.
Over the past six years, May has weathered riots, sat in on a decision to go to war, and chaired an emergency Cobra meeting in the prime minister’s absence following the murder of soldier Lee Rigby.
She has been diligently doing her homework for years and, while even she did not foresee David Cameron resigning in these circumstances (let alone the collapse of all other contenders), she is as ready as she will ever be. The question is whether that is anywhere near ready enough for the turbulent times ahead.
Tory grandee Ken Clarke’s unguarded remarks about her being a “bloody difficult woman” probably did May nothing but good with female voters – and she turned them to her own advantage at the last parliamentary hustings, promising that European commission president Jean-Claude Juncker would soon find out how “bloody difficult” she could be.
But even her friends concede Clarke has a point. “She can be a bugger,” says one otherwise admiring colleague succinctly. “Not easy to work with.” May fights her corner tigerishly and, unusually for a politician, she does not seem bothered about being liked.
It is typical of her take-me-or-leave-me approach that she managed to win the support of almost two-thirds of her parliamentary colleagues despite refusing to bribe waverers with job offers. “You can’t go in and say, ‘Make me under-secretary of state for sproggets and badges and you’ve got my support’,” says Eric Pickles, the ex-cabinet minister and longstanding ally. “That’s not how she operates. You’ve got to take her unconditionally.”
Indeed, the most intriguing political comparison is arguably not with Thatcher, but with Gordon Brown, the last political figure dominant enough to become prime minister basically by acclamation. Two serious-minded children of religious ministers, steeped in moral purpose, both possessed of an iron need to control. May is a famously reluctant delegator, needing to know exactly what her juniors are doing and to chew over every detail of decisions – a micromanagement style she cannot hope to apply to an entire government – and like Brown, she demands unswerving loyalty. (Although unlike him, she generally won’t say behind your back what she wouldn’t say to your face).
Yet for all her apparent stubbornness, in private May is surprisingly open to a well-sourced argument. A former junior minister who observed her playing hardball in negotiations says she will usually do a deal in the end: “It’s not just ‘because I say so’ – if you make a good argument to Theresa, she can be willing to change her position.”
She may not be adored, but she commands admiration, a wary respect, and deep gratitude from many Tory women for what the business minister Anna Soubry calls the “proper sisterhood” that she has built inside the party. There is something fitting about the fact that over a decade after May overhauled the candidate selection system to bring more women and minority ethnic MPs up the ladder behind her, her party briefly volunteered an all-female shortlist for the top job.
What makes a May premiership interestingly unpredictable is that she has always been driven less by ideology than by morality, a very personal sense of right or wrong. Her more radical moments – attacking police corruption, fighting Downing Street for an inquiry into institutional child abuse, overruling civil service advice – have often come from a feeling that common decency has been offended. She loathes any sense of impropriety in public service, of sloppy and self-serving behaviour leading to injustice.
On Monday, she hinted at an equally moralistic approach to economic policy, outlining plans to curb executive pay and put consumers and workers on corporate boards. In a rather audacious parking of the tanks on Labour’s lawn, she plans to pitch herself as a champion of the “left behind”, people struggling financially who voted to leave the EU because they didn’t see how things could get worse.
Robert Halfon, the minister without portfolio and champion of blue-collar conservatism, recognises that description well from his Harlow constituency. He backed May partly because he hopes she will advocate a more socially responsible capitalism.
“I don’t think she’s a slasher-and-burner. I think she’ll take on crony capitalism – I’ve said we should be a party of the NHS, not BHS, not these awful people screwing the workers,” he says.
It’s not hard to see where she got this rather old-fashioned sense of duty. The only daughter of the Rev Hubert Brasier and his wife Zaidee grew up in rural Oxfordshire, in a family that revolved around the demands of her father’s parishioners. It was dinned into her very young that, as the vicar’s daughter, she was always “on show”, and to this day she retains a puritanical streak; the juiciest surprise in her published tax return is that she gives quite heavily to charity.
Hers was a comfortable middle-class upbringing – two years of private school, then a local grammar and Oxford – and she enjoys a famously strong marriage to Philip, a banker she met at a Tory student disco.
But life hasn’t always been easy. Her father was killed in a car crash shortly after she graduated, and her mother, who had multiple sclerosis, died the year after. Then came the bitter discovery that the Mays could not have children. She watched as, one by one, her male Oxford contemporaries bagged seats before her and, despite being promoted dizzyingly fast when she finally reached Westminster in 1997, was never quite part of any leader’s inner circle.
Perhaps it took a certain sense of detachment to deliver that broadside after the 2001 defeat, in which she warned that the Conservatives would not regain power while they were seen as a “nasty party”. It remains a pivotal moment in Tory history, presaging Cameron’s modernising revolution four years later. Surviving the ferocious subsequent backlash, meanwhile, taught her that she was tougher than she thought.
Such feats of daring remain, however, rare. “She likes to go through the usual structures,” says a fellow senior minister, who praises her as careful rather than wildly creative. She is in many ways the continuity candidate, with Tories speculating that trusted colleagues might well stay in their old jobs to smooth the transition. Even the chancellor, George Osborne, has gone out of his way to be helpful, holding private talks with her in recent days.
At a time of national crisis, caution has its appeal. Halfon says that when he asked constituents for their views on a new leader, the word he kept hearing was “security”. She may lack a grand political vision, but if the sky fell in you sense she’d know what to do.
Yet awkward questions remain. If she is such a strong leader, why did she disappear during the EU referendum? Surely she was not cynically hedging her bets? And can a remainer ever really deliver a form of Brexit that satisfies the Tory right, without outraging her more centrist supporters?
The collapse of the leadership contest means May has not been forced to clarify her views on several controversial issues related to Brexit, chief among them immigration. As home secretary, she managed to be both passionately liberal on race issues – challenging stop-and-search because it routinely discriminates against young black men, for example – and hardline on immigration, baldly stating in a speech to last year’s party conference that current levels were not in the national interest. Many MPs do wonder how she can honestly reconcile such apparently conflicting beliefs.
“I’ve struggled with this, frankly,” says one modernising MP who backed her only after some soul-searching. “Her views on stop-and-search, on same-sex marriage, and forced slavery – it just doesn’t square with this.”
But Pickles, who worked with her for years on community cohesion, argues that she has merely been quicker than most to recognise what a toxic issue immigration has become.
“I’ve always been of the view that if you let the genie out of the bottle, it’s very difficult, but I think she got the early warning signs,” he says. “I think [that speech] was a genuine attempt to try and pull us back before the great chasm we descended into.”
Whatever the truth, the Conservatives are in that chasm now. It now falls to Theresa May to drag them out.