The enigmatic Prime Minister
Biographies written of politicians soon after they become the leader of their party or Prime Minister have a very spotty track record. However well-written, and however well they fill that initial appetite for information about their subject, they frequently miss the key factors which end up shaping their subject’s high-profile political career. It is only with some hindsight that the relevant earlier parts of their lives and careers can be accurately identified.
So it was, already, with Rosa Prince’s biography of Jeremy Corbyn where what has become one of the defining features of his time as Labour leader – disorganisation and infighting amongst his own hand-picked team – barely featured in her early biography of him. With some hindsight, the roots of that are easy to see his earlier career, in which so much of his political success was built in turning up to things (protests against the Americans, local tenants’ association AGMs) rather than leading teams. But only with hindsight has that pattern become an obvious one to highlight.
Her new study of Theresa May, subtitled ‘The enigmatic Prime Minister’, risks a similar fate, especially as since it has come out there has been the decision to call an early general election. Whatever way that turns out, this will be a defining feature of May’s time in 10 Downing Street, and future biographies will carefully comb her earlier career for other signs of making big surprising decisions in secret, giving colleagues little time to prepare for their consequences.
Yet there are details which are likely to be relevant, and certainly currently feel like they help explain our Prime Minister. In particular, Prince expertly charts the frequently varying reputation of Theresa May in Conservative Shadow Cabinets and then in power. She repeatedly switched back and forth between being seen as mediocre and as top flight material, and between being seen as a safe pair of hands and as a maker of major gaffes. In that sense, the only thing remarkable about her general election performance has been the concentrated high-speed form in which it has captured her earlier political career.
Her very appointment to Home Secretary was something of an accident, as Prince recounts. She was catapulted from the middle ranks of the Conservative opposition team by the decision of David Cameron and George Osborne that they had to appoint a woman to at least one senior post. May and Home Secretary became the obvious combination to secure that desire to avoid an all-male top team. (Something, it should be said, that Nick Clegg did not see as a problem. He settled for an all-male Lib Dem Cabinet team.)
Ironically, Theresa May’s time as Home Secretary started with securing the role thanks to George Osborne’s insistence, and then ended with her sacking him as one of her first decisions on moving over to Prime Minister.
Also clear from the past is her deep reluctance to talk about private matters, with Prince even finding good grounds to hypothesise that Theresa May’s love of talking about her shoes in public is in part a deflection mechanism – it lets her talk about the sort of personal details that the media and public often push for, without actually getting very personal at all: “Over the years, May would establish as mall number of ‘safe’ personal topics, including her love of shoes, which she would roll out for journalists in interview after interview. Read one after another, they are strikingly repetitive. May deployed the same anecdotes time and time again … By wheeling out her safe stories, she also leaves little space for the trickier questions on personal matters that her reserved nature shrinks from”.
I’ve always been more impressed by politicians who refuse to feature their family in their political leaflets than by those who do (if you want your family to be treated as a private matter, don’t roll them out to secure political points). So May’s approach is one that instinctively chimes with me. Yet you can also see in this the reticence which in her less successful interviews and encounters with the public since becoming Prime Minister comes over as cold and stand-offish.