Theresa May: 'Challenging headlines' and 'bitchy politics' threaten the Tories' modern makeover

Monday Interview: Chairman of the Conservative Party
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Indy Politics

Theresa May sits in her Smith Square office on an angular white sofa with leopard-skin cushions, taking a break from drafting her conference speech.

She has chucked out the sagging chintz furniture used by generations of Tory party chairmen before her and redecorated her office in pastels.

"I have changed the office since I came in," she says. "We used to have a terrible big desk and a chintz sofa. It was awful. It took me a while to get rid of it." Mrs May has not found modernising the Tory party as easy as refurbishing her room at Conservative Central Office. Her attempts to bring in more female and non-white candidates have horrified Tory stalwarts who regard her efforts at reform as a threat to tradition.

This summer, she has been the target of damaging smears, including a thinly veiled attack on her competence by the frontbench MP Tim Yeo.

Others have commented on her absence from the airwaves when Tory chairmen traditionally fill in for the party leader while he is on holiday. "Has anyone seen the Tory party?" said one headline. Another said, brutally, "May is knifed."

And Mrs May appears to be resigned to the possibility that she may not hold the high-profile position by the time of the next general election, although she hints that she would not object if she was offered another front-bench job.

"I don't know whether I will be chairman at the next election. That is a matter for the leader and I'll just get on with doing the best job I can,'' she says. "I have never been somebody who says I want to do this job for so long. I enjoy being chairman, but I am also somebody who is willing to get on with whatever job they are asked to do.''

Mrs May seems remarkably relaxed in spite of the pounding she has received over the past year, and cheerfully describes herself as "resilient". However, she makes no apology for not behaving like a rottweiler in her role as Tory chairman.

"There are those who would like to see the chairman as an attack dog and say the party should be in there aggressively attacking every day on everything the Government does," she says. "I don't think that's what the job of opposition is about. I don't think most people expect an opposition to be up there every day saying something for the sake of it."

But, when the headlines have been particularly barbed, she has sought solace in retail therapy. "It's not a cup of cocoa I reach for, it's more like a shoe shop," she says.

Theresa May has become famous for her shoes since her appearance last year on the Conservative conference platform in a pair of leopard-skin kitten heels. She is currently wearing a pair of blue alligator sling-backs, and on the wall are photographs not of Churchill, Thatcher or Disraeli but of slinky sandals. Her footwear fetish has evidently helped boost her profile in the country. Last week, Mrs May was looking in the window of a Russell and Bromley shop when a flustered employee rushed out and inspected her feet. "I am just checking you are wearing our shoes,' she said.

Last year, wearing her famous Russell and Bromley heels, she shocked the Conservative rank and file by informing them that they were seen by the country as the "nasty party". The remark has proved notorious and she has not been forgiven by many grassroots Tories who consider it a slur on their character.

This year, Ms May is to try to repair some of the damage done by her remark by telling the faithful that they are no longer nasty, but nice.

In the past 12 months, she says, public perception of the party has changed for the better and her remark that the party "is perceived as nasty is no longer true". "Over the last year the party has been showing that it is a party that is interested in issues that really matter to people and is a party that is prepared to go and look at some difficult issues that aren't necessarily headline catching. It has changed, absolutely dramatically," she says. "We have earned the right to be heard."

Mrs May's other crusade has been to increase the number of female and non-white candidates. As one of the few women the Conservatives have in the Commons, she is trying to make the party look more representative. But, with only nine women standing for the Tories in their top 60 winnable seats, she admits the task ahead of her is difficult.

"There is still more for us to do and we are working at it constantly. I am pleased to say we do have some women selected for Tory-held seats," she says.

She does not blame the blocking of women in parliamentary selection meetings on the "blue-rinse brigade". It is more of a generational issue, she says, and men are also responsible. Part of her job has been to say to people that they don't always have to select "a man ­ a barrister or a banker ­ with a wife, 2.4 children and a labrador.

There are actually other people who make good MPs too," she says. "It is showing people that people who don't fit into that stereotype make good MPs." Her personal brand of caring Conservatism has not gone down well with many traditional Tories who say her notion of reaching out to ordinary people and ethnic minorities is "loathsome". They believe her time is numbered, and there are hints that the leadership is looking for a chairman in the style of Norman Tebbit or Cecil Parkinson to raise morale.

A boost is needed nowhere more than in Brent East, where the party looks set to be driven into third place by the Liberal Democrats in the by-election on Thursday.

Mrs May has tried to bolster the flagging campaign by visiting the constituency and doing some telephone canvassing. But she is coy about predicting the result, which recalcitrant Tories are already seeing as a referendum on Iain Duncan Smith's leadership. "I make [it] a golden rule that we never predict election results," she says.

The received wisdom in Tory central office is that, although Mrs May is no war leader, she is hard working and has a knack for talking to the troops on the ground. She says visiting ordinary Tory supporters buoys her up, although she tacitly admits life has been easier outside the bitchy world of Westminster politics.

"I don't think it's true that I have had a pretty rough time within the party; certainly for the party at large,' she says. "There have been some headlines ­ in today's jargon challenging headlines. But if you are in politics you have to be prepared to take some of these things."

The party's new director of communications, Paul Baverstock, has reportedly taken to sending her text messages to tell her what to say and even wear. Mrs May denies this, rolling her eyes with frustration. Other rumours claim that she has not been allowed to develop her own ideas as chairman and has had her hands tied.

"Anyone who thinks that I am the sort of person who has had my hands tied should look again at the speech I gave at conference last year," she says.