By Paul Goodman
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The Financial Times today profiles Theresa May, correctly clocking her reliability, her workrate, her steeliness, her discretion, her relationship with her husband – and her distance from her colleagues: "Ask politicians or journalists about Ms May and they will often let out a small collective groan," the paper writes, "describing her as humourless, impenetrable and utterly straight; a terrible lunch date". No account would be complete without a nod to her best-known remark. “The nasty comment is probably the only interesting thing she ever said,” quipped one former shadow cabinet colleague. “If she was a man, she’d be regarded as a very steady grey one.”
May was my constituency neighbour for the best part of ten years, and one of the best that an MP could hope to have: unreservedly supportive, for example, of the campaign for Wycombe Hospital in which I was involved. Although I was never a member of her team, my cohesion responsibilities on the front bench was naturally linked to the party's work on equality, of which she was in charge. She was much as the Financial Times says, although it has missed her fierce sense of territoriality: woe betide the fellow Shadow Cabinet member who plonked his feet on part of their brief. It may be the same when it comes to publicity: not all her junior spokesmen have enjoyed working for her.
These traits have been transported into Government. Vince Cable has been roasted in private by May for briefing against the immigration policy she leads – I'm told that the scene was fearsome – and she sprung on Michael Gove on the National Security Council over security policy. (Gove, rightly, said that the original Prevent policy draft, though good, needed tightening up.) And I would not say that the Home Office team is among the happier Ministerial ones. But all in all, I think she has done well to date. She's not the woman to try to turn police leadership upside-down overnight – and was wrong to resist Bill Bratton being allowed to apply for the Met job – but is the one to drive through the policing and immigration reforms for which she's responsible.
Tim says in the piece that May "has two tasks, to introduce police commissioners and cut immigration. She will relentlessly pursue that and that is what Cameron likes about her." She also has to manage the police spending scaleback – a wearing enough task as it is, she must think, without hectic police leadership change (the Winsor review is examining the issue). I think she is a bit more bold and ambitious than the Financial Times suggests. She was brave to come out against party members being cut out of the 2005 leadership contest, and this stance was a reminder of her distant relationship with most Conservative MPs. And although her "nasty party" remark confirmed her modernising credentials, she has a nose for what the activists want. I thought this showed in her insistence that the party should contest every seat at the next election when talk of a joint platform with the Liberal Democrats was still in the air.
She said so when Mark Fox and I interviewed her for this site earlier this year, and we both, perhaps mistakenly, read it as a small signal. And last week's cat detail was just the sort of tale to jolt a party conference awake. My view? I think Ken Clarke behaved reprehensibly, that the cat controversy certainly influenced one court judgement – but that it was not decisive in the case, and that May should probably have hunted down a different illustration. But the flapdoodle will do her no harm with Cameron, who trusts her. I have had enough of cat jokes about paws and whiskers, but May's self-sufficiency and territoriality are certainly feline traits. Perhaps this is why I can't quite shake off the Kipling tale (which dates me) of the Cat that Walked by Himself. This is a politician who walks by herself.