Theresa May: “This nastiness, this vicious streak that has entered into our politics, is a real problem. I think it will put women off”
In the midst of Brexit negotiations, Theresa May catches up with the Conservative Party's deputy chair, James Cleverly, to discuss her personal motivation – from her unwillingness to be clubbable to her determination to change lives, tackle stigma and expose inequality. And how, while Labour talks the talk, it will be her government that delivers opportunity
Interviewing your boss is a tricky balancing act. A soft puff piece will invite ridicule to both of us, a hatchet job would have a detrimental influence on both of our careers. I don’t have much time for preamble or mood setting, I’ve only got half an hour to interview the Prime Minister.
In for a penny, in for a pound:
James Cleverly: Do you ever think ‘that’s it, I’ve had enough’?
Theresa May: “No. Quite honestly no. The point at which we leave next March, it’s going to be a historic moment for the UK. I approach the job in the way that I’ve approached every job I do, which is just focusing on what the task in hand is. Keeping your eye on the prize, the goal that you’re aiming to.”
JC: It’s often said that you are doing this out of a sense of duty, is that a fair assessment?
TM: “I think that concept of public service is there. I certainly feel that there is a duty for me and government to deliver for the people and the vote that they gave on Brexit. But I view politics as being about people, and actually about delivering for people, and delivering a better future for people.”
It’s telling how quickly the Prime Minister brings the answer around to the importance of delivering for people. She isn’t about delivering some grand philosophy, she’s trying to change lives, particularly those who she feels have had a rough deal or who have been held back.
In the aftermath of the 2017 General Election the PM was criticised for having too small a team of advisors, I ask about how she makes decisions and who she listens to. Prompted by the famous walking holiday in Wales and the decision to call the snap 2017 election, I ask what role Philip May has in her decision making. I get a very firm reply, not angry, but unambiguous and clear.
TM: “I don’t think he is part of my decision-making process, he’s my husband.”
JC: The perception is that he’s a sounding board for ideas, is that fair?
“No, he’s got his own job, I’ve got my job. We talk about local campaigning, what ward to canvass but he’s not part of any wider process.”
I’m obviously not the first person to inadvertently imply that Mr May plays more than just an emotionally supportive role. It’s not a mistake I’ll make again.
We turn to the “burning injustices” speech that she made on the steps of Downing Street two and a half years ago.
JC: Do you think there is still bandwidth, horsepower in government to deliver the things that you set out?
TM: “Yes I do. Although there is a huge focus in the media on Brexit, if you look at what government is doing elsewhere, we are also delivering a huge amount. For example, today I announced more money for affordable and social housing. But also to say that we need, we want the housing associations to work with us to remove the stigma that’s sometimes there with social housing. Sometimes people feel, if there’s a development, the social housing is stuck away in a corner. You want to be able to look at a development and not know which is the social housing and what’s being sold on the private market.”
Her desire not just to deliver more housing but also to remove the stigma that sometimes comes with living in social housing is striking. Unprompted, she expands her answer.
TM: “Other areas I’ve been working on, things like the Race Disparity Audit, I commissioned that very early on. Real questions about how different people within different communities within our society are being treated by public services. And the results show what many people know, which is that there is an inequality of treatment there, and so we’ve been able to put some money into, for example, unemployment hotspots for certain BME communities. So we’re getting on with dealing with a lot of these issues.
“I would want people to have a sense of a country that was opening up opportunities for people for the future, and that was really taking its place in the world and going forward. And a country full of optimism and hope for the future.”
I ask about the perception that optimism and hope are more associated with the Labour Party. Can these become Conservative bywords? She speaks more quickly, she’s more animated, this is what she really wants to talk about, it’s clearly what motivates her.
TM: “Well I suppose that there are two sides to that coin. First is actually pointing out the reality of what Labour does. Like every Labour government when they leave government, unemployment is higher than when they went into office. The approach they take on the economy does not deliver for people. I genuinely believe that work is the best route out of poverty. Helping, encouraging people into the workplace is so important. So I think Labour doesn’t deliver.
“They haven’t delivered. It’s a Conservative government that initiated the Race Disparity Audit, not a Labour government. I was a Conservative Home Secretary who said nobody should be stopped and searched on the streets of this country because of the colour of their skin, not a Labour Home Secretary. I was a Conservative Home Secretary in a government that introduced the Modern Slavery Act, not a Labour Home Secretary. So I would say look at what Labour does, which is so different from what it talks about. It breaks its promises. Whereas actually it’s Conservatives who really deliver for people.”
The other thing that strikes me about her answers is a discomfort with using the word “I”. Even when talking about policy areas that she initiated, drove through cabinet, and delivered in government she almost has to force herself to say “I”. She speaks about the Conservative party, or herself as the Conservative Home Secretary rather than using the personal pronoun. Would a man in her position be quite so reticent about claiming personal credit?
This leads us on to her experience of being a woman in front line politics.
JC: How did you feel about Harriet Harman’s comments that you are ‘was a woman, but not a sister’?
TM: “The difficulty for the Labour Party, is that they tended to the view that all the feminists were in the Labour Party. When actually no, in the Conservative Party we believe passionately about these issues.
“We have taken on, and continued to take on, issues like domestic violence, stalking, the gender pay gap. These are issues that as Conservatives we have taken forward, and I have taken forward. Getting more women into politics. I was a co-founder of Women2Win.”
She is clearly proud of getting more women into elected roles in the party, I ask if she feels she has additional expectations because she is a woman. Does she feel it would be different for a man in her position. She reminds me of our earlier exchange about Philip.
TM: “This is just a thought. I just wondered when you asked me about Philip’s role, whether if I was a male Prime Minister, you would have asked the same question about their wife?”
JC: I would like to think yes, but I think perhaps maybe not.
TM: “I don’t just challenge you, because you reference what is out there. I am I just raising the question as to whether actually there are those out there who think that because it’s a female prime minister, therefore there must be a man somewhere.”
I think back to the Number 10 power couples of the past, Maggie & Denis, Tony & Cherie, Gordon & Sarah, they were all seen as being more than the sum of their parts but perhaps the combination of a female PM and a husband who could easily have been a successful MP in his own right may increase interest in the dynamic between them.
TM: “I think it is important for women in politics not just to set an example by being a woman in politics, but actually to encourage other women to come into politics.
“If you have a man and a woman, both of whom are thinking that they might like to get into politics, to become an MP, the man’s more likely to go out and find a way to do it off his own back. The woman often waits for somebody to suggest it to her, to say ‘you’d be good’. And I think we’ve got to encourage more women to think actually this is something I can do.
“It’s the same in business. I was at an event in my constituency on Monday; a network called Make It Your Business, which is about women setting up their own businesses. And again it was that – let’s encourage women, many of whom have the idea but don’t actually take the step. It just needs somebody saying ‘yes, you can do it’.”
Women in politics receive a particular type of nasty and often violent misogyny online, we discuss this effect this has on recruiting women and whether it is a distraction to her personally.
JC: Do you think that puts women off? Has that affected you? Does that distract you at all from your day to day job?
TM: “It doesn’t in terms of me personally, it doesn’t distract me. But I am conscious that there are some of my female colleagues, across the House – it isn’t a party thing – but across the House colleagues have really suffered online and continue to suffer online. Obviously we’ve had some instances investigated by the police and so forth.
“But it is a real problem that this nastiness, this sort of vicious streak has entered into our politics. I think that will put women off.
“It’s so important that we ensure we have different views in politics. People have come from different points of the political spectrum, but we should be able to debate those, argue them out and do it in a reasonable way, and not resort to this sort of attack that takes place."
As the number of women in parliament increases, the way Westminster works has, and will inevitably, change. For most of her time in the house it was a male dominated place, being “clubbable” has traditionally been seen as a key attribute. It wasn’t a part of her arsenal.
JC: You quite famously didn’t do the Terrace and Tearoom circuit that is often thought as an absolute precursor to success. You didn’t do it as a backbencher, you didn’t do it when you went through Cabinet. Do you think that not doing that held you back in any way?
TM: “I wouldn’t look at it in that way. One of the messages that I give to women, in politics and business, is be yourself, don’t think you have to fit into a stereotype of how things are done. And that’s very much why, when I came into Parliament, I wanted to do the job in my way, and not feel that I had to do it in the way that other people had done it in the past.”
JC: Was there pressure on you? Did you have people earlier on in your career saying you need to do it like this, this is the way to get on, you have to build up a cohort around you?
TM: “No not really, I don’t think anybody did. There were one or two things written about ‘Shock horror! How strange Theresa May sometimes has dinner with her husband instead of being in the Tearoom’. I think there’s a natural tendency in Parliament for people to work in groups and so forth, but that just wasn’t the way that I did things.”
JC: Do you think that by rejecting the traditional rules of the political game you’ve shown there’s a different, perhaps better, way of getting on?
TM: “Well I hope that what I’ve shown is that actually people should be themselves and – whatever the job is, whether it’s an MP, minster, whatever – do the job in the way that they believe is right and not feel that they’ve got to have this group here or do this in this way or be here or there. I think it’s important to be true to yourself.”
Perhaps it is because she feels that being a female prime minister carries a higher level of scrutiny, perhaps because she wants to do the job differently she is often described as serious, the critics might say humourless. I’ve seen a different side to her and ask her why she doesn’t show it.
JC: I have said publicly that I have witnessed a cheeky, humorous, slightly irreverent side of you that it seems you are not that willing to display more publicly, and I think you should. Am I right?
TM: “That’s interesting. I was tempted to say that there are some people who would say that maybe the dancing in Africa was a side that they haven’t seen before – but there have been differences of opinion as to whether that was a good thing to do!”
I push her on this, and remind her of the time she spoke at an event for female entrepreneurs from my constituency. I was the only man in a room of 30-40 successful women, she started the speech by saying how good it was to see so many successful Essex women, but that she was from Sussex. She then made an oblique reference to our public pantomime flirtation that started with me naming her as my “snog” choice on John Pienaar’s Radio 5 show by putting her hand on my shoulder and saying “but of course ladies, they both end in -sex”. I went red and the room absolutely loved it.
I make the point that there are people who respect her, admire her, admire her work rate and her dedication but don’t feel that they know her on a human level. Couldn’t she show a little more of that softer, more humorous side?
TM: “I think it’s what suits. I’m not a stand-up comedian. I am Prime Minister. But I suppose there are certain environments for everything so that environment at that lunch was where it was; people chatting, there was a slightly lighter tone to it. Standing up and making an important speech about Brexit is a rather different environment.”
Out of the corner of my eye I’ve noticed the PM’s aide looking at her watch. The PM was about to fly out to Salzburg for, what we now know, was a very difficult meeting with EU leaders. While the photographer takes the last few pictures we all chat about my CCHQ colleague’s new puppy.
It is clear that delivering Brexit is a job of work being dutifully pursued. It’s a job she has been given rather than one she has chosen. But not delivering it is out of the question. If Brexit is her duty, then social mobility, helping the people she spoke of in her “burning injustices” speech is her passion. It’s what really drives her and it’s something that she won’t let Brexit displace.