John Major always stressed the significance of his experience as a Lambeth councillor. In a Party Political Broadcast, entitled The Journey, he said:
“I wouldn’t have missed the few years I was a Lambeth councillor for anything. It was one of the best learning schools in politics and in, I think as well, life that one could possibly have. You had almost every sort of problem to examine. People with all sorts of ambitions some of which could be realised some of which couldn’t. You had a population mix of the most extraordinary kind. A large number of people in very great difficulty often.”
Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and David Cameron did not have an equivalent experience. But Theresa May did. She was on Merton Council from 1986 to 1994. She was Chairman of Education from 1988–90 and the Deputy Group Leader and Housing Spokesman from 1992 to 1994. She represented Durnsford Ward in Wimbledon. Her majority was under 100 in 1986. But she got it up to 150 for her second term. (Her Campaign Manager, Chris Grayling, was elected to Merton Council in 1998.)
For her first term it was a Conservative Council, in her second term, a Labour one. There have been subsequent fluctuations but it currently has a Labour administration. Such partisan considerations were put to one side recently with the Council tweeting a goodwill message with a picture to remind the new Prime Minister of the Merton Years.
Nearly 20 years on, May recalled the performance of the Borough’s schools during her time with pride:
“Sadly, since my time, Merton has slipped significantly down the league table of education standards in London, and that is a matter of considerable concern to the residents of that borough.”
No doubt those eight years will have provided a helpful background for May in policy and administration. However, it is also about political identity. It means she automatically has a different relationships with the Party grassroots than David Cameron had. A different mentality. However unfairly, Cameron – along with George Osborne, Boris Johnson, Lord Feldman and others – are suspected of having some feelings of disdain for the humble Party worker.
Lord Feldman denied calling us “swivel-eyed loons”. Yet it felt plausible that the Party Chairman could have casually uttered such a remark to journalists about the membership he presides over. May’s comment – back in 2002 when she was Party Chairman – about “the nasty party” caused an even greater stir and was probably ill-judged as it was presented as an admission of guilt. Yet she survived it due a sense that she was being critical of the team while speaking to them as a member of the team.
It is simply not possible to spend eight years as a local councillor and regard Party activists as a different species. As one of May’s predecessor’s used to say (in a different context) she is “one of us”. She would be unable to belittle those pushing leaflets through letterboxes as she has done it herself. Door after door. Year after year.
You can take the girl out of Durnsford Ward but you can’t take Durnsford Ward out of the girl.