Has any Prime Minister in the memory of anyone alive inherited a more petrifying, insomnia-causing, ‘what-in-the-name-of-sweet-Lord-Jesus-have-I-got-myself-into-here?’ legacy than Theresa May?
She has only one rival and whether she or Winston Churchill deserves the title is less self-evident than it might appear. Obviously, Britain faced a clearer cut existential threat from forces massing on the other side of the Channel in May 1940, when Churchill slid into No 10 much as May did in July, albeit without the black comedy of several other contenders collapsing like kamikaze dominoes.
Yet in some ways the old boy had it easier than May. Firstly, within days of taking office, he had illuminated the path ahead by persuading the inner Cabinet to fight to the death, rather than deal with Hitler to cut an Empire-preserving deal. From that history-shaping moment, whether it led to victory or defeat, he knew in outline what had to be done.
Secondly, Churchill was leading an entirely united government and country at a time of media deference. And thirdly, he could drink. When the stress and his natural tendency to insomnia kept him up, he had the brandy bottle for solace.
May has no such consolations. Even if she sometimes feels the urge (and she must), hard liquor and Type 1 diabetes make poor bedfellows. She heads a fractious, disunited government and a country split in half over Brexit, at a time when deference is not the dominant media trait. And the path to separation from the EU is not a single lane highway like the one facing Churchill. It is a labyrinth of such staggering complexity that it seems almost impossible to decide where it starts, let alone ends.
On the plus side for May, no one is sleeping on underground platforms, and whatever rationing lies ahead when sterling’s weakness impacts on food prices will be selective and less severe than in the 1940s.
Back on the minus side, and without wanting to be impertinent, you wonder how well May’s key colleagues match up against Churchill’s. Anthony Eden did his doolally over Suez later as PM, but as Foreign Secretary from 1942 he was a spectacularly gifted diplomat. Would you say the same of Boris Johnson? Clement Attlee vs Liam Fox, and Ernest Bevin vs David Davis, also have the feel of catchweight contests.
And in Franklin Roosevelt, it’s probably true that Churchill had a wiser, saner and more reliable ally than the present PM will expect of Donald Trump, though you could substitute Uncle Joe Stalin for FDR and the point would hold.
All in all, then, it comes as no surprise to find May hinting gently at the pressure in her first non-political interview.
Talking to Eleanor Mills of the Sunday Times, May strikes the familiar tone of breezy resilience. As an interviewee, the briskness and risk aversion make her hard work. She sticks to autopilot when talking about her husband, Philip, and their childlessness, and the loss in her mid-20s of both parents within months.
She brightens up, laughingly coming over a bit “girlish”, when recounting how she agreed to record a phone video message for a married couple. There are glimpses, particularly when she talks about the Child Sexual Abuse inquiry and the horrors it investigates, that she is far warmer than the iciness of the Penelope Keith of the Home Counties facade suggests. But then so was Audrey Fforbes-Hamilton, who when reminded outside the church that the meek shall inherit the earth, replied: “And as I keep telling you, vicar, the meek don’t want it.”
Theresa May in quotes
Theresa May in quotes
1/10 On being described by the former chancellor Ken Clarke as “a bloody difficult woman”:
“Politics could do with some Bloody Difficult Women actually”
2/10 On keeping secrets even from her husband:
“There are some things I am told that I am not able to confide in anybody”
3/10 On the relentless focus on her appearance during a speech at the Women in the World summit:
"I like clothes and I like shoes. One of the challenges for women in the workplace is to be ourselves and I say you can be clever and like clothes. You can have a career and like clothes”
4/10 On comparisons to Margaret Thatcher:
“I think there can only ever be one Margaret Thatcher. I’m not someone who naturally looks to role models. I’ve always, whatever job it is I’m doing at the time, given it my best shot. I put my all into it, and try to do the best job I can”
5/10 On her rebelliousness, or lack of, as a teenager:
“I probably was Goody Two Shoes at school”
6/10 On being replaced as chairman by Lord Saatchi and Liam Fox in 2003:
“Yes, it takes two men to step into the shoes of one woman”
7/10 What Theresa May said when she was asked about her political ambitions during an interview with Miriam González Durántez, a lawyer married to Nick Clegg, in December:
MD: "My very last question is: that little girl who is somewhere there, is she dreaming of becoming the next British Prime Minister?" TM: "She’s dreaming of carrying on doing a good job in the Home Office"
8/10 On not being able to have children:
“I like to keep my personal life personal. We couldn’t have children, we dealt with it and moved on. I hope nobody would think that mattered; I can still empathise, understand people and care about fairness and opportunity”
9/10 On whether she can deliver the mandate of the EU referendum:
“I think for party members and indeed for others, I would say look at my record. I think they can see that I’m somebody who gets on with the job, but I’m also somebody who says it as I see it and actually delivers on what I say”
10/10 On the equally relentless obsession with her shoes:
“As a woman I know you can be very serious about something and very soberly dressed add a little bit of interest with footwear. I always tell women ‘you have to be yourself, don’t assume you have to fit into a stereotype’ and if your personality is shown through your clothes or shoes, so be it”
It may be the old business of projecting whatever you want to see on to a blank canvas. But I suspect this vicar’s daughter’s cultivated reticence is an artificial protective shell against vulnerability rather than genuinely glacial reserve. If Hillary Clinton’s campaigning career teaches us one lesson we already knew, it’s that women in public life remain plagued by the ancient double standards. A male PM who comes over all lachrymose is praised for having the strength to emote. A woman who cries is too weak for the job.
Theresa May isn’t weak. But beyond swotty, dedicated and sporadically on the slightly cruel side of mischievous (though God knows Boris deserves it), we still have no idea who she is. You have to admire the stoic attempt to rewind the clock to a time when a PM could cloak almost everything (including a serious stroke in Churchill’s case) in privacy. If she can ignore the craving for revelation from a reality TV-reared public and maintain the opacity, good luck to her.
For now, the most insightful things gleaned from this rare and unwilling scurry into the spotlight is that she thinks about the next day’s outfit when she goes to bed, and that Brexit keeps her from falling asleep.
That is a relief. If she was nodding off the moment her head touched the pillow, she would be sufficiently deranged for the different style of interview in which a registrar asks the question “Can you tell me who the Prime Minister is?” – that we don't seem a nanometre closer to answering now than in July.Reuse content