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Her conservatism is Brit., not the American “free trade coupled with un-free way of living” – Theresa May talks to Vogue

March 23, 2017

Europe, Women

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May on Leading Britain Post-Brexit

 

Theresa May at Chequers, the 16th Century country house of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. [Annie Leibowitz]

 

She stepped into a whirlwind to lead Britain into the Brexit era. But—leather trousers aside—Theresa May’s own style is decidedly no-drama. Gaby Wood meets her. Photographed by Annie Leibovitz.

 

 

If you’re running a country, most weeks present their difficulties, but the one in which I meet Theresa May is especially tumultuous. Five days earlier, she had become the first foreign leader to visit Donald Trump as president. The meeting was at first largely hailed in the British press as a diplomatic triumph, but within 24 hours it was portrayed as something closer to a disaster. May was on her way to Turkey—to meet President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, another high-risk encounter—when Trump issued his controversial executive order halting the admission of refugees and banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. May came under fire for not promptly condemning Trump’s actions and—in retrospect—for having invited him on a state visit before anyone had had a chance to see what kind of president he would be. She arrived home to find a member of the opposition Labour Party dubbing her “Theresa the appeaser,” in reference to Neville Chamberlain’s policy of capitulating to Hitler, and thousands of protesters gathered outside Downing Street.

May’s defense minister, Michael Fallon, had commented a few days earlier that we are no longer living in “benevolent times”—words that seemed to capture the waters through which Theresa May, the unelected prime minister of the United Kingdom, has chosen to steer a course.

I visit her on a Wednesday afternoon, between the vote in Parliament that would begin the process of leaving the European Union and a particularly pugilistic performance from May at the weekly grilling session known as Prime Minister’s Questions. At midday, she had been challenged in the House of Commons by Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, to heed the 1.8 million people who had demanded that she rescind Trump’s June invitation. May stood up and leaned in: one elbow on the ornate wooden dispatch box, shoulder turned toward her opponent, as if preparing to deliver a left hook to his jaw (a gesture she would later tell me was subconscious). “Let’s just see what he would have achieved in the last week,” she said to the packed green leather benches, whose acoustics roughly resemble those of a zoo. “Would he have been able to protect British citizens from the impact of the executive order? No. Would he have been able to lay the foundations of a trade deal? No. Would he have got a 100 percent commitment to NATO? No!” She paused to let the parliamentary roar die down before raising her voice to human-loudspeaker level. “He can lead a protest. I’m leading a country.”
Three hours later, the prime minister meets me in her brightly lit office at 10 Downing Street. Beneath a John Piper painting, where her predecessor David Cameron had arranged a pair of brown wingback armchairs, she has installed a large glass-topped table, turning a gentleman’s club into a boardroom. We sit, rather stiffly, at one corner of it, with matching cut-crystal glasses of water.

“How are things?” I ask.

A minute, amused exhalation.

“Well, um, busy,” she says. “There’s a lot to do. Every day brings new challenges.” She can’t help smiling a little at the understatement. Then, in a brisk, low voice, she begins to speak a language, if not of victory, then at least of readiness for battle.

“But it’s a great honor to do this job. A huge privilege. And there’s a real opportunity in doing it at this point in time, in terms of what we can do for the country.”

She is wearing a restrained navy skirt suit, a necklace of large cream-colored beads, and black patent pumps with a red velvet bow and sparkly heels. Though much has been made of her ostentatious footwear (knee-high patent boots, brogues with a touch of diamanté, kitten heels in a range of animal prints), her dazzle is always in the undertow.

May—Mrs. May, as we are to call her—is 60, tall, and a little stooped. She laughs with surprising ease but is in every other respect efficient, crisp, and studiously un­eccentric. In the six months since she became prime minister, many Britons have wondered what lies beneath her carefully preserved carapace of conformity. (“I know I’m not a showy politician,” she admitted last year. “I don’t often wear my heart on my sleeve.”) And with every new revelation, the answer has appeared to be more of the same. She’s fond of cricket, but her favorite player is Geoffrey Boycott, one of the most boring batsmen in England’s history. Before she became a politician, she worked at the unexcitingly named Association for Payment Clearing Services. When she donated her recipe for scones to a British newspaper, it turned out to be austere: fruitless, a minimum of butter, and just enough milk to prevent the mixture from resembling sand.

 

Philip & Theresa May [Annie Leibowitz]

 

In an era of personality, May projects reliability. “It’s not a popularity stakes, being prime minister,” she says brusquely when I ask if she feels the need to be liked. “I think what’s important is for people to feel that I’m delivering for them.” In this respect, says former foreign secretary William Hague, “she is quite different from most modern global leaders.” As early as 2002, she spotted—prophetically, in the case of the United States—that “more people vote for a TV show than a political party.” She urged her colleagues not to become more like celebrities but to hold themselves more accountable. The curious story of Theresa May is that her practical, dogged, uncharismatic mission may turn out to make her the most unusual politician of her time.

I ask her what she made of Donald Trump. “I like to think we got on,” she says. “I mean, obviously he has, uh . . . it was a stunning election victory, in that he’s someone who has not been involved in politics.” Was that a backhanded compliment from a seasoned politician? May had said, before he was elected, that she found Trump’s comments about women “unacceptable.” When she went to Washington, D.C., thousands of women asked her to confront him about them. Did that come up in conversation, I ask?

“Well, I don’t . . . ,” she begins. “We don’t comment on private conversations that take place. All I would say is, I’ve been very clear: I’m not afraid to raise issues. And the nature of the relationship is such that we should be able to be frank and open with each other.”

So open, indeed, that they held hands outside the White House—an image that quickly went round the world. “I think he was actually being a gentleman,” May says, laughing off this gesture. “We were about to walk down a ramp, and he said it might be a bit awkward.”

May, who is the second female prime minister of the U.K., is often compared, rather lazily, to Margaret Thatcher—and her companionable appearance with Trump inevitably recalled the “special relationship” pursued by Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. (Trump referred to May as “my Maggie.”) I ask her if the constant comparisons to Thatcher frustrate her.

Her jacket moves, barely perceptibly, on her shoulders.

“There can only ever be one Margaret Thatcher,” she says. “I’m Theresa May. I do things my way.”

The historic whirlwind that led to May’s appointment as prime minister veered between Greek drama and Ealing comedy. On June 23, just over half the British voters chose to leave the European Union. David Cameron, the prime minister who had told them the decision was theirs, resigned, and the two male front-runners to replace him collapsed in a back-stabbing incident. Two women were left in the race: Theresa May, the home secretary, and Andrea Leadsom, a junior minister.

Leadsom shot herself in the foot by seeming to imply that May would make a bad leader because she had no children and therefore no stake in the future; the public outcry led her to withdraw. And then, to paraphrase Agatha Christie, there was one. Theresa May, the only person sturdy or cautious enough to remain standing, took office without ever having to fully present herself to the people she was about to lead. Few of them knew much about her.

In the run-up to the referendum, May had kept a profile so low she earned herself the nickname “Submarine May.” Cameron reportedly asked her on thirteen separate occasions to campaign for the “remain” side, and she refused. In the end, she voted, as he wished, to stay in the European Union. Now she is presiding over a tectonic shift to which she was apparently opposed—what William Hague calls “the most complex situation in British foreign policy since the 1940s.”

To May, the notion of a kept promise matters more than the referendum result. “One of the things we’ve seen happening in recent years in politics is an increasing lack of trust between people and the politicians,” she tells me. “I think it’s very important that people feel that politicians are holding faith with them. And Parliament having said to the public, ‘You vote, you decide,’ we need to deliver on it for them. So yes, I did vote to remain. But also what’s important is that the country feels, I think, that it wants to come together.”

As a gesture toward unity, her position couldn’t be more canny: She can honor half of the people’s wishes while keeping one foot in the camp of the other.

On a frosty day in January, two weeks before we met at Downing Street, May prepared to announce the precise way in which she aimed to lead her country out of the European Union. Hundreds of diplomats and European journalists gathered in a gilded function room at Lancaster House, in the shadow of Buckingham Palace, to hear her “Plan for Britain.”

May emerged in the Vivienne Westwood tartan pantsuit she’d worn to make her leadership bid in June. (“People have described it as a lucky suit,” she later told me irritably. “I think I’m going to stop wearing it now.”) Her speech was composed, like a sonata, in three movements. The first was a peace offering to Europe (“The decision to leave the E.U. represents no desire to become more distant to you, our friends and neighbors”). The second was a detailed account of her extensive demands (control of immigration, free trade with Europe, new trade agreements with the rest of the world, cooperation in fighting cross-border crime, and the right to drain the brains of European universities). The third was a veiled threat: The government would not be pressured into revealing more. And if European countries chose to punish Britain for wishing to leave their union, well, that would be an act, she said, of “calamitous self-harm.” Britain’s intelligence capabilities, May explained, were unique in Europe and had “already saved countless lives in very many terrorist plots that have been thwarted in countries across our continent.”
It was to be a “hard Brexit”—no half-measures—and security appeared to have become May’s global bargaining chip.

Where does May really stand? As the historian Amanda Foreman points out, British conservatism doesn’t correlate exactly with American Republicanism. “Conservatism in the U.S. means free trade coupled with an un-free way of living,” she says. Issues such as reproductive and LGBT rights are not at risk in Britain in the way they are in the U.S. Health care is free; handguns are virtually banned; statutory maternity leave is a full year. “American conservatives are very much in your bedroom. In Britain that is so fringe-y that it’s practically on the freak show side of politics,” says Foreman. May, she believes, is “ideologically much closer to Hillary Clinton than she is to Donald Trump.”

But May is harder to pin down than that. Until last July, she was the longest-serving home secretary in more than a century. It’s a crash-and-burn sort of job in which steeliness is more of a requirement than charm. Her current stance on a number of major issues can be seen as stemming from her experiences in that office.

For instance, in the supposed interests of security, she introduced the Investigatory Powers Act—nicknamed “the snooper’s charter”—which gives the government unprecedented access to the phone and computer data of its citizens. May is keen to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, as a result of the difficulty she had in deporting her two counterterror trophies, the radical clerics Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada. She is far more restrictive on immigration than many in her own party, recently capping at 350 the number of unaccompanied child refugees who can enter Britain. Though she is sometimes compared to the German chancellor Angela Merkel (they are both the daughters of Protestant clergymen), the two women are unalike on these issues in particular.

Yet on other matters May has been borderline liberal. She has excoriated the police force for racism in their ranks and investigated deaths in custody. She has told her Conservative colleagues that they had a reputation for being “the nasty party.” She has regularly voted in favor of same-sex marriage. Her signature piece of legislation, the Modern Slavery Act (2015), penalized human-traffickers with life sentences, and it is the first of its kind in Europe.

Karen Bradley, currently the government’s culture minister, worked on that act and notes that May changed the institutionalized habits of the Home Office by always asking first, “What will this mean for a victim of the crime?” William Hague observes that May “likes to take the necessary time over decisions. She studies things herself. She works late. If she needs more information, she’ll ask for it.” He adds that her skill at making alliances behind the scenes is often underestimated. (May’s work ethic is all the more striking for the fact that she has to watch her diet and exercise regimen carefully—almost four years ago she was diagnosed, unusually late in life, with Type 1 diabetes.)

Yet her reflective, case-by-case decision-making has led many people to wonder what she actually stands for.

“What do I believe in?” she says when I put this question to her. “I suppose if I could sum it up: in opportunity, freedom, security.” And does security trump freedom? I ask. She shakes her head. “I think it’s very important that we always ensure that we maintain the fundamental freedoms that we have. Because if you lose your freedoms, then actually the terrorists have started to win.”

In her bid for the Conservative leadership, she spoke about “burning injustices,” about what it meant to be born poor or black, and she put herself “at the service of ordinary, working people.” In other words, as the Guardian columnist Owen Jones put it, she had “raided the rhetoric of the left.” Are these really, I ask her, Conservative values?

“Yes,” she insists. “If I try and exemplify what I consider to be the difference between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, I think the Labour Party believes in pulling people down to a level; we believe in helping people to rise up—to improve their lives and the lives of their children.”

May grew up in Oxfordshire, where her father, Hubert Brasier, was an Anglican vicar. She remembers that he never wrote out his sermons but delivered them vividly—occasionally using props from their kitchen (a pie dish went missing once and was found in church, illustrating the miracle of the loaves and the fish). May resists the suggestion that being an only child made her especially self-sufficient, but she says it did mean she was “exposed to more adult thinking” than if she’d had siblings “because the conversation around the breakfast table is more about current affairs—and cricket.” At twelve, she decided she wanted to become a member of Parliament (school friends remember her wanting to be prime minister, but May disputes this), and volunteered for the local Conservatives, stuffing envelopes.

She studied geography at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, but devoted much of her time to politics. At a disco held by the Conservative Association, she met her future husband, Philip May. (They were introduced by Benazir Bhutto, who would go on to become prime minister of Pakistan and was assassinated in 2007.) Many British politicians have been members of the Oxford Union debating society, but May—then Theresa Brasier—was president of its more anarchic sibling, the Edmund Burke Society. It specialized in silliness, but its style could also, reportedly, be caustic, drunken, parodic, and vituperatively personal. May presided over proceedings, Mad Hatter–like, brandishing a meat tenderizer in place of a gavel. On one occasion, after she’d graduated and Philip had taken over as president, May returned to speak against the proposition that “sex is good . . . but success is better.” No one can recall her argument, exactly, but she was at least dressed to prove the point, revealing her décolletage in a floor-length red gown that she’d had made from a length of satin found in her mother’s closet.

May still occasionally flashes her sense of humor, much remarked upon by people who know her well. If you catch her eye in a meeting, Bradley says, “her face is deadpan, but you can see the laughter behind the eyes.” At a recent Prime Minister’s Questions, a male Conservative MP asked May what “message of reassurance” she had, given the welcome progress of women and ethnic minorities, “for fat, middle-aged white men who may feel that we have been left behind?” She stood up, waited soberly for the laughter to die down, and said, with impeccable timing: “That’s a very interesting point. Perhaps my honorable friend would like to come up and see me sometime.”

Soon after the Mays were married, Hubert Brasier died in a car crash. May’s mother, Zaidee, suffered from multiple sclerosis and died a few months later. At the age of 25, the future prime minister was left with Philip as her sole close family member. “I’ve been fortunate that he’s been very supportive to me,” she says. They’ve known each other so long that “there’s something, which is the bond between you, that develops over time.” As for the lack of a family of their own, she says, “Look, it’s one of those things. We didn’t have children. You just get on with life.”

Philip May, a banker, is by all accounts affable, private, and modest. “He doesn’t mind walking a step behind,” says their friend Anne Jenkin, a Conservative member of the House of Lords. The couple spends occasional weekends at Chequers—the prime minister’s official country house—but their permanent home is in Sonning, a gentle, postcard-pretty village in the constituency May represents as a local MP. Somewhat improbably, George and Amal Clooney bought a house in the village too. While George has been known to pop into the local pub for a pint, the Mays’ social life tends to revolve around the village hall. On vacation, they like walking in the Alps and reading through piles of crime fiction. At home, May enjoys cooking. “We have a very good system,” she says. “I cook, and he puts everything in the dishwasher.” Still, she has less time for that these days and has been amazed to discover that her husband cooks a very good mushroom risotto.

“What do you argue about?” I ask.

“Do you know, I think we argue about the same things that most people argue about—like, who has the remote? And what we’re watching tonight. His history program? No—NCIS!”

One significant way in which May differs from Margaret Thatcher is that she has been active in supporting women behind the scenes. In 2006, she was photographed wearing a black T-shirt that read, “this is what a feminist looks like”. When I ask her, at Downing Street, whether she would still call herself a feminist, she prevaricates. “I haven’t thought about that for a very long time!” she says with a laugh. In 1997, when May was elected to the Commons as MP for Maidenhead, the Labour Party won by a landslide, and one of its proudest achievements was the number of new female MPs: 101. In a famous photograph, Tony Blair stood surrounded by them, earning them the nickname “Blair’s babes.” Meanwhile, the Conservative Party lagged behind with thirteen women—and even those few were, in Jenkin’s phrase, “at the battle-ax end of the spectrum.” As May tells me, “The party did have a problem.”

As party chairman, May altered the selection process so that it became less inadvertently gender-biased. Then, with Jenkin, she founded Women 2 Win, a support network for Conservative women who wanted to become members of Parliament. “It is a little-known fact,” she said at the launch, “that there are more men in the Shadow Cabinet called David than there are women.”

May went up and down the country, encouraging women to stand for Parliament. “We could deploy her like a very effective Exocet,” says Jenkin. The generation of Conservative women elected to Parliament in 2010, when the Labour Party lost and May was made home secretary, became “her girls.” Karen Bradley, who was one of them, remembers that May was “incredibly supportive in practical ways. The force behind it was amazing.” The women who work closely with May all attest to her loyalty—and to the loyalty she inspires in them. It is a fact rarely mentioned that Andrea Leadsom, May’s rival for the leadership, is now a minister in her cabinet.
One of the minor freedoms May has sought to protect for herself is the ability to wear the clothes she likes. She has no style advisers and shops in a boutique in Henley, a town near her constituency known for its regatta. Though she often wears the British designer Amanda Wakeley and has a new coat by the young Southeast London–based Daniel Blake, she doesn’t feel the need to restrict herself to British brands. She grumbles a little over the fact that when she wears something more than once, journalists describe it as “recycled.” “There aren’t many people who buy things to wear only once,” she says. But her clothes have already got her into trouble. For an interview with a British Sunday-newspaper magazine, she wore a pair of brown leather trousers worth almost £1,000 ($1,250). Was this the right gesture to make, asked a fellow Conservative MP, when May was supposed to be speaking up for what her government calls “JAMs”—families who are “just about managing”? A furor ensued. The press dubbed it “Trousergate,” and for at least a couple of weeks, “leather trousers” was the top predictive search after the prime minister’s name on Google.

When I ask if this surprised her, May makes a dismissive sound. “Pfft,” she says. “Look, throughout my political career, people have commented on what I wear. That’s just something that happens, and you accept that. But it doesn’t stop me from going out and enjoying fashion. And I also think it’s important to be able to show that a woman can do a job like this and still be interested in clothes.”

One morning last fall, May visited an elementary school in Maidenhead, where she had recently judged a cake competition. She was wearing a pair of court shoes with clashing opinions: Red leather, green croc, and leopard print vied for attention with tartan trim and a diamanté clasp. Of all the times I saw her, this was the most approachable and thoughtful she’d been. The children—aged between seven and eleven—fired a range of questions at her, and she considered them carefully before replying.

“If you had a superpower, what would it be?”

“I think I’d want to make sure that everyone in the world had access to clean water and sufficient food, so that we didn’t see people starving,” she said.

“What advice would you give to girls who want to be prime minister?”

“Be yourself,” she suggested. “And if you have any setbacks, don’t ever think it’s because you’re a girl.”

At one point, she bent almost in two to hear a small voice at the front of the hall. Then she took a question from the back.

“How much money do you get paid?”

The audience laughed as one.

“I get paid two salaries,” said May plainly. “I get paid as a member of Parliament, and I also get paid as prime minister. And if you add those two up. . . .” She made a lightning-speed calculation about whether the boy deserved a straight answer. “I suppose it’s public knowledge,” she went on, “it’s £142,000 [about $177,000].”
“Oooooooohhhhhh!!”A surge from the sea of red cardigans: the sound of 360 small children, amazed.

This was in stark contrast to the way she conducts herself in her office at Downing Street. There, May refers at one point to “the law of unintended consequences,” and she appears to have this in mind as we speak, operating at all times as if a trap were being laid for her. She says she doesn’t read much history and tries not to picture how things will be in advance. She doesn’t think about her legacy. When I raise the notion of empathy, she dismisses it as being “a very ‘today’ word” (she prefers understanding). She seems willfully unimaginative, kicking every question into an area of generality.

But her directness with the schoolboy in Maidenhead leads me to wonder: Is it necessary to love our leaders? Or is it enough to trust them? May’s most pronounced characteristics, her rigor and sense of duty, may turn out to be more useful than a grander plan.

As the glossy black door of 10 Downing Street closes behind me, an image comes to mind unbidden: May in a suit of armor—unbreachable, a little embellished, and prepared for whatever might come her way.

 

THURSDAY, MARCH 23, 2017. 10:00 a.m. [GMT]

 

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