Theresa May: A feminist in kitten heels

Written by Amber Elliott on 24 January 2012 in Interview
She’s had a run in with Ken Clarke, a cat, a civil servant and the UK Border Agency in her time as home secretary. But what is May doing about her other brief, as the minister for women and equalities? Amber Elliott discovers she can talk at length about increasing female representation in politics and business. Just don’t expect her to pick as many fights

This article is from the February issue of Total Politics

Theresa May is happy to admit that she is a feminist. But almost everybody qualifies for feminist credentials, under her definition.  

“It’s that age-old question that some people don’t like the term ‘feminist’ because they think it portrays a certain type of woman,” says May. “To me, it’s about ensuring there’s a level playing field and equal opportunity.”

Who could disagree? It’s the kind of ‘catch-most’ cautious statement that has come to define the second-ever female home secretary. “A safe pair of hands” is how most Conservative MPs will characterise May. Or, as a less kind Tory MP says, “just bland”.

She certainly isn’t from the burn-your-bra strand of sisterhood. Sitting in her room in the Home Office, legs crossed, wearing a pair of purple kitten heels, May is discussing women’s representation in Parliament. Unfortunately, the only really spiky point is on the end of her shoe.

In April 1989 Vivienne Westwood appeared on the cover of Tatler dressed as Margaret Thatcher, under the title: “This woman was once a punk.”

In the Home Office, May, who has been compared to the Iron Lady, wears a Westwood jacket. The radical politics of the other women is nowhere in sight.

First on the list is how the Conservatives plan to get more women into Parliament next time around. May, minister for women and equalities, says that her party is unlikely to embrace all-women shortlists, as Labour has. “For the simple reason that we’ve had significant success in the changes we made anyway,” she explains.

“What we’ve said is that if a seat wanted to have an all-women shortlist, they could do that. A couple of seats have had all-female candidates in their final shortlist, but that’s been their choice.”

As chairwoman of the Conservative Party from 2002-03, she was credited with early work on recruiting more Tory women to winnable seats. And although the internal politics of Iain Duncan Smith’s leadership took up a lot of her energy, she also found time to design the ‘A-list’.

When David Cameron become leader in 2005, a Conservative committee on candidates reduced around 500 aspiring politicians on the party’s list of approved parliamentary candidates to an ‘A-list’ of between 100 and 150 priority candidates. Cameron suggested it would “change the face of the Conservative Party by changing the faces of the Conservative Party”.

And although more women were selected at the last election, the proportion of women on the candidate’s list was roughly the same by the end of the last Parliament. One female Conservative elected in 2010 suggested that the weakness lay in “failing to encourage women to come forward in the first place”.

Cabinet Office secretary Francis Maude presented a similar view in a Total Politics interview last year: “It was both a surprise and a disappointment. I thought that doing what we did to make it more likely that women would get selected – which succeeded – would encourage more women to apply.”

And it’s not just the Conservatives. In a speech a couple of months ago, Tony Blair’s wife Cherie Booth pointed out that only 22 per cent of UK MPs are women. This is an increase from 10 per cent in 1992, but, incrementally, it may take another 200 years to reach equal representation.

May does not see the issue being as urgent as Booth suggests. “It’s a more diverse Parliament now than it has been before,” she says, smoothing down her skirt. “Some improvements can be made. We were very careful in looking at some issues, analysing what we’d done and how it had worked.

“It is right that Conservatives continue with measures that have had success so far. It’s up to individual political parties whom they select as their candidates, so there’s a limit to what Parliament can do.”

But the figures suggest there’s more that Parliament can do. The Electoral Reform Society says that although women make up over 50 per cent of the population they represent only one in five MPs. It also points out that there are currently more millionaires in the cabinet than women.
One group looking to rectify this disparity is the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament. Conservative MP Mary Macleod has established the APPG to increase the number of female MPs.

Among the group’s planned actions are exploring mentors for candidates, more input from senior businesswomen and research into women’s voting patterns from the last general election.

Macleod explains: “The number of female MPs has increased over recent years, but we still have a lot to do to continue the momentum for change.” The APPG also notes that the proposed boundary changes could make it more difficult to achieve an absolute increase in the number of female MPs.

May agrees that the Boundary Review presents a significant obstacle. “Because of the review, no party can start to select candidates until they’re clear what’s happening there,” she explains. “Which seats are going, which seats are staying. And, of course, there will be sitting MPs who will be affected, and it will be necessary to think about them as well.”

Theresa May is also the president and a founder of an organisation called Women2Win, which looked at ways to encourage more “high calibre” women into Conservative politics. “Anne Jenkin and I and one or two others set it up,” the home secretary says. “It was our baby and it made a tremendous difference.”

The organisation campaigns to promote more of the “brightest and best” women the party has to offer and to convince Conservative associations of the benefits of putting their trust in female candidates. Baroness Jenkin, Women2Win’s treasurer, also believes that the Boundary Review will affect women’s representation nationally.

“The rumour is that we’ll have five women [MPs] hit very badly by it,” she says. “The central party is keen to make sure that every sitting MP finds somewhere to go. It’s a difficult balancing act, but the party, centrally, is very conscious of it, very involved in making sure that we don’t lose any women.”

Beyond the looming complication of the Boundary Review, though, what more can be done to improve the female headcount on the Conservative backbenches? May reveals that she expects the party will look again at refining the selection process, as the Conservatives did towards the end of the last Parliament: “The interviews, the speeches before associations, and so forth… whether there were any changes there that needed to be made.”

She also hints that there may be more of a role for primary selections next time around. “We’re the first and only political party to have primary selection processes. There were some examples where primaries worked very well and we got a more balanced diversity of candidates coming through. Sometimes it didn’t work quite so well – we need to look at what the differences were.”

Baroness Jenkin points out that postal primaries did produce local women candidates. “The normal primaries were not so successful for women,” she says. “For some reason, the men were better at organising their bussing in. That’s something to watch out for. It’s a danger in the primary system.”

But she feels that women suffer additional strains that go deeper than administrative changes. “A man plans his political career from early on – the age of seven or so,” she jokes. “Women get to 40, their kids are nearly grown up. They’ve had the business career. Politics is potentially good for that group. They’ve got good life experience.”

In this situation, groups like Women2Win aim to guide these women on the best way into the political process. “Mentoring and practical support for women candidates made a tremendous difference,” says May. “We’ve got an increased number of women MPs. We’ve got a real opportunity for them to act as mentors to other women, as role models, and provide experience for them, which will be a great benefit.”

Interestingly, May insists she doesn’t have any role models herself. “It’s paradoxical, given that we’ve talking about role models. It’s just not naturally ‘me’. I don’t say: ‘Oh, I want to be like X’. I don’t go about my business in that way.”

Indeed, May seems reluctant to share her story. “She is extremely private,” agrees one person who knows the home secretary well. Yet it’s difficult to see how May can promote public role models without talking about her own journey.

For a moment, she looks thrown: “Well… I… it depends how your definition of ‘role model’ develops… I’m a great believer that a lot of it is about getting on and showing that you can do the job. I do try… I go around quite a lot speaking to women’s groups about women, trying to encourage them to aspire, to achieve what we can do in a practical sense to help them, be it in business or in politics. I wasn’t aware I hadn’t told my story.”

So she wouldn’t describe herself as particularly private? “I suppose I’m not naturally over-effusive in wanting to go out there and tell everybody my story. Showing that you can do something, that you’re in the job and doing it, is more important than the back-story.”

How does she feel being described as the highest-ranking women in politics? “I have always just tried to get on with what I’m doing,” she states simply. “When I read it and hear it, what I feel is responsibility. There’s an added reason for me to try to do my best – to show that a woman in this position can do my job.”

It is rare to hear about May’s ‘soft side’ (beyond her shoe collection). She has an excellent brake mechanism. There’s no slip of the tongue or off-the-cuff remark. At one point, the Total Politics photographer suggests putting her hands on her hips. “No,” comes the reply.

Narrow your eyes slightly, suggests the photographer. “I’m not sure narrowing your eyes is a good idea for a politician,” she says. “It just makes you look shifty.”

That’s not to say that May doesn’t have a softer side, but she’s unlikely to let you in on a first encounter. She has ‘safe subjects’, like her unusual footwear and her love of walking and cooking. But new information is hard to obtain. Her guilty pleasure? Shoes. “Everybody talks about it,” she admits. “But it’s probably not a guilty pleasure…”

Ask her what makes her cry, though, and the defences go up again. “I’m not somebody who often tears up in public,” she says.

She’s even cautious about having a light pop at the opposition. May has said how much she enjoys cooking in her spare time. What would she cook for her Labour opposite Yvette Cooper and her partner Ed Balls? There’s a very long pause. “Well, I do a whole variety of things,” May ponders. “I think I’d do a pudding that had lots of sweetness in it,” is the eventual answer.

“She finds it very difficult to relax,” says another good acquaintance. “Mind you, that job is impossible. You see a lot more of her when she’s with Philip [her husband]. He’s a very quiet sort of character but he levels her a lot. It’s gin and tonic – [they’re] a real mixture.”

Another friend of May’s also picks up on her relationship with her husband. “He’s her Denis [Thatcher]’. You often see them… Well, you used to see them… She’s been working in that place for a long time and it’s bloody hard work.”

Indeed, May admits that it’s quite normal for her to work until around 1am. “It depends on how many papers are in my red box at home,” she says. “Enjoying what you’re doing is key. But don’t think that we don’t get tired.

“There is so much to do… It’s a way of life rather than a job, in terms of the hours that you spend on it. The sort of issues one deals with are really important to people’s day-to-day lives… big issues.”

Some of these big issues have made front pages in recent months – and haven’t always been kind to May. First, there was ‘cat-gate’, which led to a row with justice secretary Ken Clarke at Conservative conference. Then came the revelation that UK border checks had been relaxed over a four-month period. The home secretary blamed UK Border Agency boss Brodie Clark for taking “unauthorised actions”, but Labour said it was “shocking” that May was unable to give figures for the number of airports that had relaxed checks over the summer – even under her own authorised pilot scheme.

Although May emerged relatively unscathed from these encounters, one Conservative insider thinks she has made “some howlers recently”. “It’s certainly undermined her reputation for being a ‘steady as she goes’ minister.”

However, one very well-placed Tory MP is broadly supportive of how she’s handled the vast role. “While she had her immigration issue, she was right and Brodie Clark was wrong. She has been able to do something that no Tory home secretary has done before – to essentially detoxify the Home Office. Apart from Clark and the cat stuff, when has the Home Office been front-page news in this Parliament? It hasn’t… She’s an über-safe pair of hands.”

With flattery like that, it’s not surprising that some are beginning to murmur about May’s political future. For the second time in her Westminster career, she finds herself up against Labour’s Yvette Cooper. They both held the work and pensions brief, and now they face each other at Home Office questions and on women and equalities. They are also both tipped as future leadership material (although few home secretaries have ever succeeded in making the journey to prime minister, with Winston Churchill and Jim Callaghan as two notable exceptions).

One Conservative MP remembers talk of May standing for Conservative leadership in the summer of 2005. “It was rather improbable she could have succeeded, but there were certainly feelers put out there. Mind you, there were all sorts of people being talked about – Alan Duncan was another.”

Another believes that the only way May could ever be a future candidate would be if she was a consensus candidate – and other people standing were strongly on the left or right: “She wouldn’t be the one to change the world. She’s not exactly a blue-sky thinker. She’d keep the ship on course, should we ever need someone like that.” But other Tories note that she’s “a bit of a lone wolf” and “not very clubbable”, which may hinder her chances of reaching the top job.

May has a stock answer for the leadership question. “I’ve always taken the view that you just get on with the job that you’re doing, at the point you’re doing it,” she says.

She will admit that she “gets on pretty well” with Cooper. But no cosy fireside chats about police numbers? “No, that’s not how one normally approaches these things. But there are issues on which there’s a joint desire to move forward.” It’s another safe reply.

One advantage that May has over some of her other cabinet colleagues is her background in business. She worked as a financial consultant at the Bank of England in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as a senior adviser in international affairs at the Association for Payment Clearing Services until 1997, when she was elected to Parliament.

Did she experience the glass ceiling in her time in the City? “I worked in – I don’t want to say this these days – but I worked in the banking sector, which was more open. The financial services world has tended to be fairly open.”

However, a recent report by the Chartered Management Institute reaches a different conclusion. It finds that women managers will not reach pay parity with male colleagues for almost a century. Last year, separate figures showed that only 12.5 per cent of all FTSE 100 board members were women, and that nearly half of the most successful companies still do not have a single woman on their boards.

The home secretary seems to think a lot of it comes down to personal qualities. “Men have always networked much better than women,” she says.“Women are getting better – they have learnt how to network. The [other] big challenge, which still exists, is for women to be able to do the job and still be themselves, not to feel that they‘ve got to adjust to the male model. It’s about partly having an acceptance in any workplace that the skills the women bring are equally valid and good as the ones the men have, but that sometimes they’re different.”

Or, as IMF director Christine Lagarde put it: “If Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters, today’s economic crisis clearly would look quite different.”

Miriam Clegg, the deputy prime minister’s wife, recently called for temporary quotas to force up the number of women in British businesses. She admitted she “hated” the principle of positive discrimination, but believed proposals were necessary to address the “shocking” shortage of top female businesswomen. And Cherie Booth also stated that evidence showed that 30 per cent female representation is the minimum necessary to
create a critical mass of women – a target recognised by the United Nations.

“I spotted that they’d both said something about this,” says May. “My view has always been that it should be possible to achieve what we want to achieve without going down a ‘quota’ route.”

This may be the case, but the government already sets voluntary quotas for business leaders and has called for 50 per cent of appointment to public boards to be women by 2015.

May continues: “You need not just to achieve a change and increase in numbers of women, but to change attitudes. The problem with quotas is that you get into a mental tick-box, which isn’t about changing attitudes. So the ultimate goal, in any situation, must be that nobody thinks twice about whether it’s a man or a woman in front of them.”

A few months ago, May set out the foundations for how this might be achieved, in a speech entitled Women and the Economy. “Of course, mandatory quotas can offer a short cut or a quick fix to increase female representation. But countries that have used alternative models have made significant progress… Achieving change in this way is hard work and progress can be slower than everyone would like. But as a woman, I never wanted to get anywhere because I was part of a quota that someone needed to fill. I wanted to get there because I’d worked hard for a job and because I deserved it.”

The speech also contained an emphasis on ‘soft skills’ – confidence, role models, mentors, a women’s business council. Isn’t this just gesture politics? “It is partly about encouraging and understanding,” replies May. “And it’s not just about soft skills, which are often what’s talked about in relation to women. There are things within a workplace that a woman will often do instinctively more than a man: more team-working, more delegation. These are things that can strengthen a company. I wouldn’t say they are soft skills. They’re management skills…”

What would the home secretary tell her 16-year-old self if she had the chance? “Be yourself,” she replies.

She’s not as divisive as Thatcher. She’s not as radical as Westwood. Theresa May is just trying to be herself – but she’s careful about how much we get to see. And while we know her as a feminist in kitten heels, it’s best not to mention cats.

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