Theresa May was born in 1956, in Eastbourne, England, only child of Hubert Brasier and Zaidee Mary May. May’s grandmother Violet chose the name Zaidee, because she was highly religious and Zaidee is the name of Abraham’s wife in the Old Testament. Her father was a Church of England clergyman who served as Vicar of Wheatley, not to be confused with ‘Vicar of Dibley’, a British sitcom from the 1990s in which Dawn French came to serve in an eccentrically conservative church community.
May’s grandfather served in India and had been a regimental sergeant major but two of her grandmothers were in domestic service and her great-grandfather was a butler in service, genealogy that overwhelmingly middle-class Theresa plays down.
She attended a state primary, an independent convent school. According to ambivalent sources from the time she was a closet hair-puller, but excelled at geography, knowing all the tribes and capitals of the Commonwealth. She learned from ‘Ladybird’ books about the special history of England and its place in the hearts of people around the world, though she has recently conceded she doesn’t read much history. Twice a week she was allowed to watch ‘Blue Peter’, where Val Singleton was a particular favourite though she was always in bed by eight as the Reverend liked to watch ‘Z Cars’ and there was a danger of bad language.
It was idyllic. Doves cooing in the trees over the duck-filled village pond at Wheatley and Morris dancing on the green. But halcyon days could not last forever. She moved up to Holton Park Girls’ Grammar School, a state school in the village of Wheatley, which became the ominous-sounding Wheatley Park Comprehensive School during her time there.
Talk in the common room was reportedly turning to Communism and wife-swapping.
May was a shy girl but no fool. She mustered all her girlish indignation and resolved she would become prime minister and restore the grammar school regime and the standards that went with it.
This was at a time when immigration was taking hold all over Britain. May was naturally aware of the threat to the English way of life.
The young Theresa Brasier, as she was then, threw herself into village life, taking part in a pantomime that was produced by her father and working in the bakery on Saturdays to earn pocket money to spend on bullseyes and – always the fashionable one – bellbottoms. She kept a Bay City Rollers outfit under her mattress and wore it once at a barn dance. In later years she has worn it to meetings with Nicola Sturgeon.
Friends recall a tall, clothes-conscious young woman on lime-green platform shoes who from an early age spoke of her ambition to be the first woman prime minister. She was an obsessive fan of boring and abrasive batsman-cricketer Geoffrey Boycott and at one time her father reluctantly had to have austere words with her about this.
Principally on the back of her excellence at Geography she advanced to Oxford University where, in 1976, in her third year, she was introduced to Phillip May at a Conservative Association disco by Benazir Bhutto, later Pakistani prime minister. Phillip was president of the Oxford Union, a hotbed of people with strong views, some of them left wing. Theresa and Phillip were learning fast that this had to be subverted. Margaret Thatcher was on the rise and they were both really into Geoffrey Howe. May had her first Pimms, by 1979 Phillip and Theresa were holding hands, visiting local reservoirs to check the water levels on Sunday afternoons, and in 1980 they wed.
The next year tragedy struck: the Rev Hubert Brasier was driving his Morris Marina to a nearby church where he was due to conduct the evening Sunday service when he was in collision with a Range Rover on the A40 outside Oxford. The vicar, 64, died of head and spine injuries a few hours later.
A report of the inquest at the time told how he had been trying to cross the busy A40. He “edged forward from the central reservation into the path of a Range Rover”. The Range Rover, with a driver and two passengers, tried to brake in time but collided at high speed with the front wing of the Marina. Mr Brasier was rushed to hospital but it was too late.
May went to work in the City, initially starting work at the Bank of England and later rising to become head of the European Affairs Unit of the Association for Payment Clearing Services. She used to tell interesting stories about clearing.
Next she had failed attempts at election to the House of Commons in 1992 and 1994 but was successfully chosen as MP for Maidenhead in the 1997 general election. From 1999 to 2010, May held a number of roles in the Shadow Cabinets of William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. Even though a woman, she was at least as fascinating a character as they were, so they made her Chairman of the Conservative Party from 2002 to 2003.
In the early days at Westminster she became known for her exuberant choice of footwear – her kitten heels became famous in political circles in the noughties, while she named a lifetime subscription to Vogue as the luxury item she would take to a desert island.
It is her toughness which has become her political hallmark. She likes to talk of herself as a bloody difficult woman. “I am a bloody difficult woman”, she repeats. Her patent furrowed eyebrows remind most English people of their crossest relation and cabinet ministers always accept what she says when she does them. Another favourite is her rictus smile, which she deploys in difficult situations as a substitute for wisdom. She has coped with being one of only a small number of women in the upper echelons of the Conservative Party for 17 years and has been prepared to tell her party some hard truths – famously informing activists at the 2002 conference that “you know what some people call us – the nasty party”.
Reappointed as Home Secretary after the Conservative victory in the 2015 general election, she went on to become the longest-serving Home Secretary since James Chuter Ede over 60 years previously.
During her tenure she pursued reform of the Police Federation, She implemented a harder line on drugs policy including the banning of khat, oversaw the introduction of elected Police and Crime Commissioners, the deportation of Abu Qatada, the creation of the National Crime Agency and additional restrictions on immigration. She came from a background where Johnny foreigner was always suspect and it was as likely she would be outward looking as that she would marry a man called Mustapha or live in a towerblock squat in Hounslow.
As someone with strong views on, though no actual awareness of or experience of, immigration, in 2010 she promised to bring the level of net migration down to less than 100,000. It was a number and it sounded tough.
She also rejected the European Union’s proposal of compulsory refugee quotas, a double whammy. The Conservative party, and May in particular, had long promised to bring net migration – the number of migrants coming into Britain minus those leaving – down to “tens of thousands” a year. But the number rose to 333,000 in 2015. As a distraction, she once claimed an illegal immigrant avoided deportation because of his pet cat. “We all know the stories about the Human Rights Act … about the illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because – and I am not making this up – he had a pet cat”, she told a stunned Tory Party Conference in 2011. Judges and human rights campaigners promptly accused her of getting her facts wrong and even her colleague, then justice secretary Ken Clarke, said: “The cat surprised me. I cannot believe anyone was refused deportation just because they owned a cat”.
The cat played well so in 2013 May went for a pilot billboard campaign that told illegal immigrants to “Go home or face arrest”.
She also voted against reducing the age of consent for gay people in 1998 and against the repeal of Section 28 – laws banning the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools – in 2000. But allies say she’s been on a journey and that her views have changed over the past decade and a half. She voted in favour of same-sex marriage in 2013, saying: “Marriage should be for everyone”. It wasn’t clear if she meant it should be compulsory.
Before the Brexit referendum May explained privately (to the folks at Goldman Sachs):
”I think the economic arguments are clear. I think being part of a 500-million trading bloc is significant for us. I think that one of the issues is that a lot of people will invest here in the UK because it is the UK in Europe. If we were not in Europe, I think there would be firms and companies who would be looking to say, do they need to develop a mainland Europe presence rather than a UK presence? So I think there are definite benefits for us in economic terms”.
May also said Britain was more secure as part of the EU due to the European arrest warrant and Europe wide information sharing among other factors. Luckily she said this to Goldman, and only half meant it. It was the ideal position for a Prime Minister in the making.
And so when Britain voted for Brexit in 2016 condemning David Cameron to posterity’s viciousness, she ascended; in the process whipping an impossibly smarmy Michael Gove, a vile Andrea Leadsom who denigrated May’s childlessness, Stephen Crabb and Liam Fox (a crab and a fox). Boris Johnson sat it all out, a hamster who had been outed as a rat.
May’s public reticence during the Brexit referendum campaign had resulted in tensions with David Cameron and his pro-EU team. Cameron reportedly asked her on thirteen separate occasions to campaign for the “remain” side, and she refused. She and George Osborne, a proper Tory boy, were inflammatory. Mrs May’s aides were almost certainly responsible for letting it be known that she had given him a severe dressing down, telling him he needed to show more humility if he ever wanted to be prime minister.
May failed to reappoint him after a number of earlier clashes, mainly over immigration, when the then-chancellor had argued – bad idea – for a more relaxed approach to economic migration.
When Vogue asked her what she stands for she replied, “I suppose if I could sum it up: in opportunity, freedom, security”. Unexciting then.
ITV’s Political Editor Robert Peston commented: “Her rhetoric is more left-wing than Cameron’s was but her cabinet is more right-wing than his was”.
She suffers from Type 1 diabetes, requires two insulin injections daily, and so is not entirely in favour of privatising the National Health Service. Certainly she has spoken about “burning injustices”, about what it meant to be born poor or black, and she put herself “at the service of ordinary, working people” but really she’s really allowed herself to be defined primarily as a force with Johnny foreigner (to whom she is hostile).
Describing her as a liberal Conservative, the Financial Times characterises May as a “non-ideological politician with a ruthless streak who gets on with the job”, in doing so comparing her to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. nevertheless, in The Independent, Rebecca Glover of the Policy Innovation Research Unit has contrasted May to Boris Johnson, claiming that she was “staunchly more conservative, more anti-immigration, and more isolationist” than he is”. It is widely accepted she is less foolish than Johnson and indeed than the majority of the English people. Johnson will succeed her.
Although May had supported remaining in the EU, she appointed several of the vainest advocates of Brexit to key Cabinet to negotiate the terms of it, including Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, David Davis as Brexit Secretary, and Liam Fox as International Trade Secretary.
May said she called the snap 2017 election to secure a majority for her Brexit negotiating strategies. The hard Conservative manifesto committed to leaving the single market and customs union but to seek a “deep and special partnership” through a comprehensive free trade and customs agreement. It proposed seeking to remain part of some EU programmes where it would “be reasonable that we make a contribution” and stay as a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights over the next parliament and maintain the Human Rights Act during Brexit negotiations, though under pressure from the Birmingham and London Bridge atrocities she has clearly signalled willingness to “tear up” human rights protections where she sees fit. In general Parliament would be able to amend or repeal EU legislation once converted into UK law, and vote on the final agreement.
May has promised a “mainstream government that would deliver for mainstream Britain”. The manifesto proposes to balance the budget by 2025, raise spending on the NHS by £8bn per year and on schools by £4bn per year by 2022, remove the ban on new grammar schools (unfinished business), means-test the winter fuel allowance, replace the State pension “triple lock” with a “double lock” and require executive pay to be approved by a vote of shareholders. It dropped the 2015 pledge not to raise income tax or national insurance contributions, but maintained a commitment to freeze VAT. New sovereign wealth funds for infrastructure, rules to prevent foreign takeovers of “critical national infrastructure” and institutes of technology were also proposed. The manifesto was noted for its relaxedness on intervention in industry, lack of tax cuts and increased spending commitments on public services.
Social care became a major election issue after the Conservative Party’s manifesto included new proposals to make older people pay for their care, policies which May ignominiously changed after criticism from her grey base. May particularly appeals to older people and is said to have always been old at heart.
At the time of writing, the Tory gambit of playing to her strengths by making her start every sentence on the campaign with “I am stable and strong” appeared high risk as it clashed with the whole thrust of Brexit which will weaken Britain, unstably.
In the election she was lucky her principal opponent was the wit-and-hap-less eccentric, Jeremy Corbyn.
Vogue described May as “studiously uneccentric”. but there is nothing at all beyond the studiedness. She is distilled essence of English middle-class. Russell Brand struck a sour note likening her to a vindictive librarian drawn by Quentin Blake [for a Roald Dahl novel]. Putting May’s personality on the line for the electorate seemed to have backfired as, sadly, she has none.
Small details of Theresa May’s biography have been exaggerated or made up, to reflect her unreal, nostalgia-filtered worldview.