Book review: Theresa May, The Enigmatic Prime Minister
Rosa Prince’s instantaneous biography attempts to understand what makes Theresa May tick - and how she reached the top of the Tory party.
This biography of Theresa May is, as the author admits, something of a hurried job. It was originally due to be published towards the end of 2018 or even in 2019 to coincide with what was thought to be a change in the leadership of the Conservative Party. But as Harold Macmillan would have opined, “events, dear boy, events”, forced it to be hastily brought forward following the tumultuous activity following the EU referendum. In July 2016 Theresa May became leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister.
So Rosa Prince had to hastily interview dozens of people and speed up her research. You reviewer has to admit that he was one of those interviewed and has indeed been quoted in the biography. Rosa Prince is a journalist and author of Comrade Corbyn (2016) another instant political biography which, on the whole, received favourable reviews.
Unlike Corbyn, May has spent most of her political career avoiding publicity and with a reputation for working very hard and taking her time to make decisions. The challenges facing Prime Minister May are formidable. Even if she did not have to grapple with the most complex task of the modern political era, negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU and attempting to establish a new place for the UK on the World stage. At the same time she has overthrown many of the policies of the Cameron era and is grappling with serious challenges on the domestic front.
Theresa May is fortunate in that the Labour official opposition is in permanent turmoil and the rebellious Eurosceptic right of UKIP and the Conservative Party are, at present, both sated and quiet. But then events can change rapidly as Theresa May knows only too well.
Rosa Prince’s biography isn’t definitive and she doesn’t claim it to be. Rather an instantaneous biography that attempts to understand what makes Theresa May “tick” and how she became leader and Prime Minister.
I think the author establishes that from a very early age Theresa May is on record as being interested in and participating in politics and wanting to be Prime Minster. But then that motivates many people but very few are able to achieve it.
Her family background is very important, her father being a vicar and brought up in a family inbreed with the concept of public service. She has strong religious and Conservative principles and great tenacity and strength of purpose.
She progressed through a 1970s educational system – hence her admiration for grammar schools for educational excellence and social mobility. At Oxford she read geography and found the love of her life – Philip May. After the death of her parents Philip became her family and a close political collaborator and adviser.
Reading her biographical details before she was elected as an MP in 1997, one is struck by its normalcy for a politically active Oxford graduate – meetings, service as a councillor, speaking engagements. But also the struggle women candidates had at being selected for safe Conservative seats. Once she was elected Theresa May enjoyed the support of some of the few senior Conservative former women ministers, and then as she moved up the hierarchy she gave herself a leadership role in “Women2Win”.
Once in Parliament through her own natural hard work and talents and because of the limited size of the Parliamentary Party, she found herself promoted by Hague into the Shadow Cabinet. For much of her Parliamentary career she has been patronised by the men, and Rosa Prince gives the impression that Theresa May is moved around a lot because she was a safe pair of hands and the need to have at least one senior female Cabinet minister. That plus luck is how she became Home Secretary in 2010.
Her strength and weakness is that Theresa May is not clubbable. She couldn’t understand MPs who spent time in the Tea Room or bars gossiping and plotting. She much preferred to have a quiet dinner with her husband. Until 2016 she had a poor reputation with her backbench colleagues. On the whole they respected her abilities but she had few real friends and no great wave of supporters as Osborne had carefully constructed for himself.
And yet Rosa Prince documents how she had leadership ambitions and relied upon a very small group of supporters, including her Spads Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill who are ruthlessly proactively protective.
Reading this biography one is struck by how Theresa May carefully got on with each of her Shadow Cabinet and Cabinet appointments, was mistress of her brief, and clung on it when insulted or demoted. Whilst frequently charming and with a sense of humour she can be absolutely icy and seek revenge on those who have shown her disrespect. At the moment she is almost mistress of all she surveys, but Theresa May is very conscious of how events can change everything.