The absurd idea has taken hold that Theresa May is incomprehensible. In the title of Rosa Prince’s admirable new biography, she is described as The Enigmatic Prime Minister.
Certainly she presents to political journalists a number of difficulties. She seldom has lunch with members of the parliamentary lobby, and when she does, she declines to gossip, leak stories or brief against colleagues.
Amid the rush of modern journalism, where one is expected to produce more and more words based on less and less contact with anyone who might tell one something, lunch is admittedly a less significant meal than it used to be.
But May’s refusal to trade in gossip strikes at the heart of how the relationship between politicians and journalists works.
It does not, however, make her incomprehensible. It makes her serious.
She is identifiable as a certain kind of Englishwoman, who is respected for her reticence and respectability. Millions of us welcome her commitment to privacy because we share it.
In this inhibited idiom, deep emotion can still be conveyed. The language and the gestures are understated, and there is no pretence of having arrived at a complete solution before that is possible.
The press would like her to be more forthcoming. The public sees no need for this. It just wants her to get on with it, and will judge her by results, not by the degree of emotion she shows.
Men in senior roles often feel the need to show they are human beings too. They display pictures of their wives and children.
Often this looks horribly bogus, but somehow the man feels compelled to do it. This is particularly the case when his closest relationship is by now with his secretary, and he never sees his children.
Because the Prime Minister is a woman, she does not have to prove she is a human being. She needs to prove she is dedicated to her job, and doing it at least as well as any man would do it.
Nor does she feel the need to engage in the competitive conversation which arises between successful men, or men who aspire to be successful.
Winston Churchill once walked round a poor area of Manchester with Eddie Marsh and said: “Fancy living in one of these streets, never seeing anything beautiful, never eating anything savoury, never saying anything clever.”
There speaks a gifted and ambitious young politician, who was also, incidentally, a gifted and ambitious young journalist.
What brilliant gifts he demonstrated to anyone he wanted to amuse or impress, and how he revelled in doing so. Here was a man who saw the importance, not merely of lunch, but of dinner. Not for Churchill the solitary and sober meal taken at one’s desk which is the lot of the latter-day careerist.
When I interviewed Charles Moore for ConHome about the first volume of his biography of Margaret Thatcher, he said one of her great strengths was that she did not examine her own life in the way that a man might have done:
“That’s the trouble with male vanity. You say, ‘Ha, ha, I fooled that bastard.’ She was fooling people a lot, but she would never have said that, even in private.“
May too has fooled people a lot: Prince reminds us of that. But usually they fooled themselves, by wilfully ignoring the formidable ability she demonstrated in every role she played, and especially as Home Secretary.
She has also shown a determination not to be pushed around, whether by the Cameroons or by anyone else. She seldom makes the easy concession, which would defuse the immediate row but might well lead to trouble later.
So on the right of EU citizens to remain in the UK, she has not said, as a tactful and well-mannered man would have felt tempted to do, “Of course you can stay here.”
There has been no unilateral concession: she has insisted on the need for a bilateral agreement, which likewise guarantees the rights of UK citizens living in the EU.
One suspects that although liberal-minded commentators have condemned her for this, most members of the wider public are pleased to see that the person negotiating Brexit on our behalf is not a push-over.
“Men of letters, fond of distinguishing themselves, are rarely averse to innovation,” Edmund Burke observed in his Reflections on the Revolution in France.
It is far easier to write an amusing column suggesting that compared to oneself, May is being backward and unimaginative about Brexit, than an amusing column in which one notes with admiration how she has maintained a surprising degree of unity in her own party, and, with Philip Hammond, a surprising degree of confidence in the British economy.
According to Janan Ganesh, writing a day or two ago in the Financial Times,
“her lapses into asinine jingoism (she wants a ‘red, white and blue’ exit) have raised expectations by framing the talks as a doddle that only the unaccountably pessimistic would wish to put off.”
His final sentence is even more damning:
“We should credit her appetite for the risk, if we could be sure she was aware of it.”
What a marvellously patronising note on which to end. This woman is so limited she does not realise how dangerous her behaviour is.
May is used to being patronised. Prince quotes Keith Simpson MP, explaining why on becoming Prime Minister she conducted such a ruthless clear-out of the Cameroons:
“I think bubbling up, suppressed inside her, was twenty years of being patronised.”
The Prime Minister’s life has been shaped by her loyal membership of two institutions which used to be more deeply embedded in English life than they are now: the Church of England and the Conservative Party.
When she went on Desert Island Discs, she chose two hymns, including the Anglo-Catholic “Therefore we, before Him bending, this great Sacrament revere”, which, she recalled, “sometimes if my father, mother and I were in the church, we would just kneel down and sing”.
Her father’s training for the ministry at the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, in Yorkshire, clearly had an enduring influence. This was a matter not only of spiritual formation but of the habit of not sparing oneself in looking after all one’s parishioners.
In both Church and party, as Prince records, May has done a huge amount of work at the local and least glamorous level. Her assumption is that pouring out the tea or delivering leaflets is what one does. As she put it when launching her leadership campaign:
“I know some politicians seek high office because they’re driven by ideological fervour. And I know others seek it for reasons of ambition or glory. But my reasons are much simpler… Public service has been a part of who I am for as long as I can remember. I know I’m not a showy politician. I don’t tour the television studios. I don’t gossip about people over lunch. I don’t go drinking in Parliament’s bars. I don’t often wear my heart on my sleeve. I just get on with the job in front of me.”
It is an unexciting prospectus, and it omits her ambition, declared when she was very young, to become Prime Minister.
But it made her sound more grown-up than any of her rivals. And it is compatible with what Walter Bagehot wrote in 1856, in The Character of Sir Robert Peel, in which he explained why “a constitutional statesman is in general a man of common opinions and uncommon abilities”.
He went on to say (in words which of course apply as much to women as to men):
“Public opinion is a permeating influence, and it exacts obedience to itself; it requires us to think other men’s thoughts, to speak other men’s words, to follow other men’s habits.”
Just now, public opinion as revealed in the EU Referendum requires the Government to bring about Brexit, even though, like May, many of its members voted for the other side. That is her task, and she would not last five minutes if she rejected it. In Bagehot’s words,
“the most influential of constitutional statesmen is the one who most felicitously expresses the creed of the moment, who administers it, who embodies it in laws and institutions, who gives it the highest life it is capable of, who induces the average man to think, ‘I could not have done it any better if I had had time myself’.”
No one can tell whether she will manage this. But the test for May is whether the average person, rather than the average member of the intelligentsia, thinks at the end of the process, “I could not have done it any better if I had had time myself.”