Wry & Dry

Who is Teresa May?

Who is Teresa May?

The erudite David Runciman (great nephew of that great historian of the Crusades, Steven Runciman [1], and heir to the Runciman Viscountcy) has written a delightful and insightful review of Rosa Prince's biography of Teresa May, in the latest London Review of Books.  I commend the article to Readers [2].

Here are some of the more interesting snippets:

*  Both May's maternal grandmothers were 'in service' (i.e. lived and worked in the homes of wealthy aristocrats).  (Former PM, David) Cameron's "ancestors more likely to employ maids than to work as servants." 

*  Like Cameron, May went to Oxford, though in her case there was nothing inevitable about it. Unlike the politically ambitious boys who gravitated towards PPE, she chose to read geography.  She debated at the Oxford Union against, inter alia, Malcolm Turnbull.

*  May’s Oxford wasn’t Cameron’s. She went to church every Sunday. She didn’t drink much, and in any case couldn’t afford to. Her idea of a good time was to watch The Goodies, which as one of her university friends puts it, ‘was our sense of humour’.  There were no drugs and none of the alcohol-fuelled debauches enjoyed by the Bullingdon Club boys David Cameron and Boris Johnson.  Cameron took his PPE degree and made a brief career in PR, biding his time until a safe seat became available. May, who had no formal economic training, went to work at the Bank of England before going to the City.

*  The public tends to see (Boris) Johnson as the ultimate clown politician, all stunts and no substance. That’s not the way May sees it. For her it was (David) Cameron, (former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George) Osborne and Gove who were fundamentally unserious, because they were the ones who made promises they couldn’t keep. Johnson had the advantage of never having his promises believed in the first place.

*  Cameron was all posh boy charm and insouciance, flying by the seat of his pants with the aid of his network of well-connected chums. May is earnest and diligent, apparently less opportunistic and more willing to assess things on their merits. 

*  One risk is that the sheer volume of homework will overwhelm her. Diligence, as she has shown in the past, can become dithering, especially once the horse-trading starts in earnest and those Europeans who wish to make Britain pay are given the chance to embarrass her. At the same time, she is unlikely to take kindly to any attempts to knock her off course. Her advisers have shown that they aren’t frightened to lash out.  Getting through Brexit successfully will probably require a certain amount of insouciance. 

*  At the same time, her domestic advantages remain formidable. She has qualities that will make her very hard to dislodge as prime minister.  She knows and likes the Conservative Party.  Cameron didn’t, however hard he tried to conceal it. What’s more, May gives a strong impression of liking her wider electorate, or at least having no desire to judge them by any standards other than their own.

*  It is often said of democratic politics that the question voters ask of any leader is: ‘Do I like this person?’ But it seems more likely that the question at the back of their minds is: ‘Would this person like me?’ Cameron did OK on that score because many voters suspected he would at least be polite and try to conceal any awkwardness he felt. But May is a natural.

*  Thatcher was the outsider. She was a man’s woman, and that was the secret of her success. She liked men; she liked men more than she liked women. And I don’t think that’s the case with Theresa.

*  May is also, as far as one can tell, strikingly uncorrupt. She emerged not just unscathed but enhanced from the expenses scandal, when it was revealed that she had claimed well under her allowance and was one of the most frugal members of the Commons.

[1]  Sir James Cochrane Stevenson Runciman was an English historian, best known for his three volume A History of the Crusades. This history has had a profound impact on common conceptions of the Crusades, primarily portraying the Crusaders negatively and the Muslims favorably.  He spoke and read Latin, Greek, Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Hebrew, Syriac, Armenian and Georgian.  In his personal life, Runciman was an old-fashioned English eccentric, known, among other things, as an aesthete, raconteur, and enthusiast of the occult. According to Andrew Robinson, a history teacher at Eton, "he played piano duets with the last Emperor of China, told tarot cards for King Fuad of Egypt, narrowly missed being blown up by the Germans in the Pera Palace hotel in Istanbul and twice hit the jackpot on slot machines in Las Vegas".

[2]  London Review of Books Vol 39 No 6, 16-Mar-17, https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n06/david-runciman/do-your-homework?utm_source=LRB+icymi&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20170422+icymi&utm_content=aunz_subs