Sitting on the sun-drenched patio overlooking the Downing Street garden yesterday, Theresa May runs her fingers over the pretty blue necklace she is w
Sitting on the sun-drenched patio overlooking the Downing Street garden yesterday, Theresa May runs her fingers over the pretty blue necklace she is wearing.
It is one of a number of gifts, along with sacks of letters and cards, she has received from well-wishers since she tearfully announced she was stepping down as Prime Minister.
With typical modesty, Mrs May mentions that many people were saddened that she has been forced to stand down, having been bruised and battered by fellow politicians on both sides of the Commons divide.
Fingering the necklace proudly, she says it was sent in the post from ‘the ladies in the Jaeger shop in Marlborough in Wiltshire’.
Among other welcome parting gifts from voters in Middle England who felt sorry for her being the fall-girl for the country’s rancorous Brexit deadlock was a bouquet of flowers sent by someone who described himself as ‘a male boss and the lads who worked for him’.
With typical modesty, Mrs May mentions that many people were saddened that she has been forced to stand down
Mrs May says the warmth shown to her by the public was ‘truly humbling’.
In less than two weeks, she will leave No 10. She knows the history books could be harsh in their judgement of her failure to deliver Brexit during her three years as PM. There is no escaping the fact that her job was to deliver the wishes of the 52 per cent of people who voted Leave in the 2016 EU referendum and of those who voted Remain but realised that the result must be honoured.
Certainly, the brutality of her eviction from No 10 has been very painful to watch.
Forever etched on our memories will be the way she finally crumbled as she stood in the middle of Downing Street on May 24 and told the nation that she was standing down.
She concluded by saying she was leaving the job that it had been ‘the honour of my life to hold – the second female prime minister but certainly not the last’. She continued: ‘I do so with no ill-will, but with enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love.’
Certainly, the brutality of her eviction from No 10 has been very painful to watch
I ask her about that moment. She replies: ‘If a male Prime Minister’s voice had broken up, it would have been said “what great patriotism, they really love their country”. But if a female Prime Minister does it, it is “why is she crying?”.’
Her hackles also rise when I refer to how her German counterpart, Angela Merkel, has looked worryingly wobbly in recent public appearances.
‘I’m interested you picked a female example,’ she retorts sharply. ‘Are you saying it’s only females who feel the strain?’
Has she had sleepless nights in No 10? She replies: ‘There are times you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about things that are going on.’
Without doubt, the way Mrs May, 62, has coped with the sheer physical and psychological strain of being Prime Minister has been compounded by having Type One diabetes, requiring her to have regular injections. But she has taken all that in her stride.
Although it is hard to imagine the vicar’s daughter swearing, surely she must have cursed when things went badly wrong?
‘I have been known to,’ she laughs.
What about using the f-word? With a tantalising laugh, she shoots back: ‘I have often said that I am… frustrated.’
Over the course of a conversation lasting nearly an hour, Mrs May insists that, despite failing on Brexit, she has a legacy to be proud of.
Over the course of a conversation lasting nearly an hour, Mrs May insists that, despite failing on Brexit, she has a legacy to be proud of
Candidly, she talks about reasons for those times she woke up worried about big decisions in the middle of the night and of mistakes she made. Despite the best intentions, she also failed signally not to take a couple of well-aimed swipes at Boris Johnson and Chancellor Philip Hammond – who has been accused of trying to block Treasury cash for some of her legacy spending pledges, such as a £27billion school funding plan.
Acidly, she points out to me that her full title is ‘Prime Minister and First Lord of Treasury.’ Translation: she outranks Hammond when deciding whose hands control the public purse strings.
She laughed off her cruel ‘Maybot’ tag – given because of her robotic repetition of phrases such as ‘strong and stable’ during the 2017 election campaign.
Keen to dispel her image for being dull and work-obsessed, she says she knocked back Aperol spritzers and larked about on the plane while flying home from the recent G20 world economic summit in Japan.
A legacy of tackling injustices
Theresa May is setting up a new watchdog to promote a fairer society as part of her legacy.
The Office for Tackling Injustices, an independent body to be known as Ofti, will be tasked with combating injustice, with tough measures to hold Cabinet ministers to account on the issue.
Mrs May said: ‘Deep-seated social injustice requires a long-term focus and cannot be eliminated overnight. I am proud of what we have achieved to make the UK a more just society. But there is more to be done if we are truly to say that this is a country which works for everyone – no matter who they are or where they’re from.’
The watchdog will ‘shine a spotlight on injustices, provide better solutions and create lasting change’, she said.
But there was no time for such relaxation when she was fighting her forlorn battle to get her Brexit deal through the Commons. Thrice she tried and thrice she failed.
Undoubtedly she is scarred by highly personal attacks on her from hard-Brexit Tory MPs, disloyal Cabinet ministers, intransigent Brussels officials and unhelpful fellow national leaders who, in turn, opposed and patronised her.
Despite the July sun shining over Downing Street, the clouds of Brexit will never clear from Mrs May’s CV.
One of the main criticisms from hardline anti-EU Tories about her approach to Brexit negotiations was that she would have got far more out of Brussels if she had swung her handbag like Margaret Thatcher.
Mrs May won’t accept that argument for a minute. ‘I did everything I could to get it over the line!’ she exclaims, straining forward. ‘I was willing to sit down with Jeremy Corbyn, willing to sacrifice my premiership – give up my job!
‘People have asked me: “Why didn’t you tip the table over?” But if you do that constantly, it’s like the little girl crying wolf – it ceases to have an effect.’
If not tip over the table in Brussels, how about if she had used a ‘more positive energy’ – Boris Johnson’s apparent solution to the Brexit impasse? ‘I can assure you I put positive energy into it!’ she replies firmly.
What about her likely successor’s claim that he will be able to secure concessions that Brussels denied her? He clipped response are 12 tart words: ‘The EU have said they don’t want to and won’t reopen agreement.’
She makes no attempt to conceal her anger with hard-Brexit Tories – now backing Johnson – who refused to back her deal.
‘I had assumed mistakenly that the tough bit of the negotiation was with the EU, that Parliament would accept the vote of the British people and just want to get it done, that people who’d spent their lives campaigning for Brexit would vote to get us out on March 29 and May 27. But they didn’t.’
She was boxed into a corner and assailed from both sides.
‘People say “you are being far too rigid! You’re insisting on this!” Then, on the other hand, people say: “You’ve given everything away. You’ve compromised and moved too far”. They can’t both be true.’ In hindsight, she concedes she should have done more to prevent what she describes as ‘the polarisation between the language of soft and hard Brexit’ that divided the warring factions in Parliament.
Brexit apart, she feels another low in her premiership was the way she reacted to the fire at the Grenfell tower block in London which killed 72 people.
Significantly, Mrs May avoids referring to Boris Johnson by name but there is little doubt who she has in mind when she says: ‘Too many people in politics think being Prime Minister is a position of power’
This month, she hosted a party at No 10 for children survivors.
‘I was dancing with one of the children. I just wanted to give them a bit of enjoyment.’
On the brighter side, Mrs May says she’s proud of her campaigns to combat modern slavery, reduce plastic waste, boost mental health care and set a new target for zero carbon emissions.
She reels off more achievements: ‘Biggest-ever NHS cash boost. Record employment. Record low unemployment. Youth unemployment halved. More women in the workplace. Wages rising faster than inflation. More homes built last year than in all but one of the last 30 years.’
Unlike showman Johnson, Mrs May was brought up in a household where boasting was frowned on. She tried to ‘champion unfashionable causes’.
Significantly, she avoids referring to Boris Johnson by name but there is little doubt who she has in mind when she says: ‘Too many people in politics think being Prime Minister is a position of power.
‘Actually, it is a position of service to the country where you are always asking yourself “What more can I do for the public?”.
‘All too often those who see it as a position of power see it as about themselves and not about the people they are serving. There is a real difference.’ Ouch!
For her part, Mrs May embraces being called an ‘unfashionable politician’.
‘I have never spent endless amounts of time in the Commons tea room or socialised in the Strangers Bar,’ she says.
Maybe if she had, she would have quelled some of the backbench Tory plots against her.
It is universally held that her biggest mistake was the botched election of 2017 which cost her Commons majority. Her campaign chiefs had told her that all she had to do to win was repeat the mantra ‘strong and stable’ and avoid debating with Jeremy Corbyn on TV.
It was a disaster.
‘Looking back, it wasn’t a “me-style” kind of campaign,’ she says. ‘I should have done the TV debates. I didn’t because I had seen them suck the life blood out of David Cameron’s campaign.’
Unfortunately, her reputation for being boring was fixed when, during that election campaign, she said the most daring thing she had done in her life was to ‘run through a wheat field’.
Wouldn’t she have a better Prime Minister if she was more spontaneous, more fun, more reckless, even, like Boris Johnson?
Mrs May won’t budge and denies her Downing St has been a joke-free zone.
Recalling that Aperol sprtizer-fuelled flight back from Japan, she says: ‘There was plenty of laughter. We were playing cards and jokes were going round.’
Much more seriously, her biggest fear is that Jeremy Corbyn might one day occupy Downing St.
‘It would quash all hope and optimism for this country. Look at what he has done to a once proud patriotic party.’
Mrs May’s father, Church of England Reverend Hubert Brasier, whose unfashionable sense of duty she inherited, died in a car crash when she was in her early 20s.
What would he make his daughter being Prime Minister?
‘He would be immensely proud and say: “Don’t forget those you have worked for as Prime Minister.”
She intends to stay on as Maidenhead MP and take up roles with charities connected with diabetes and modern slavery.
Will she miss being Prime Minister? ‘What I won’t miss is the sense that any moment, you are constantly on call; you go on holiday, an office goes with you, at any moment you could have to make a big decision. Now I’ll have more space and time.’
After 36 months of having to endure Brexit bickering, bawling and brawling, that’s the very least Theresa May deserves.