Saturday 22 July 2017

Oxford romance that has guided Theresa May from tragedy to triumph

Britain's Home Secretary Theresa May, who is due to take over as prime minister.
Britain's Home Secretary Theresa May, who is due to take over as prime minister.

Robert Mendick

With his arm placed gently around her waist, Philip May gives his then girlfriend Theresa Brasier a supportive hug.

It was June 1977 and Miss Brasier, then aged just 20 and glancing back at the camera with a knowing look, had just completed her final exams at Oxford University.

Almost 40 years on, the couple remain inseparable. Theresa May is on the verge of becoming the country’s next prime minister, an ambition which, friends told The Telegraph, she has harboured since the age of 18 when she first arrived at Oxford.

Mr May, “her rock”, could soon become Britain’s First Husband, the new Denis Thatcher. Three years after the photograph was taken, the couple married at the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Wheatley in Oxfordshire, where Miss Brasier’s father was vicar.

A year later, tragedy struck. The Rev Hubert Brasier was driving his Morris Marina to a nearby church where he was due to conduct the evening Sunday service when he was in collision with a Range Rover on the A40 outside Oxford. Mr Brasier, 64, died of head and spine injuries a few hours later.

A report of the inquest at the time told how the vicar had been trying to cross the busy A40. He “edged forward from the central reservation into the path of a Range Rover”.

The Range Rover, with a driver and two passengers, tried to brake in time but collided at high speed with the front wing of the Marina. Mr Brasier was rushed to hospital but could not be saved.

A few months later, Mrs May’s mother Zaidee, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, also died. At the age of 25, Mrs May was suddenly an orphan.

Mrs May has barely talked about the tragedy, telling Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs only that her husband had been a “huge support”, adding: “That was very important for me. He was a real rock for me.”

Alicia Collinson, a close friend at Oxford, who heard about the crash much later, said: “It was dreadful... Theresa had Philip and Philip saw her through that. He was and remains her rock.”

Mrs May and Miss Collinson both arrived at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, to study geography in October 1974, just as Harold Wilson was winning the second general election of that year.

Wilson’s victory was the talk of the university and at a college breakfast not long after, the young Theresa Brasier turned to her friend Alicia Collinson and said she would one day be prime minister.

“My memory’s hazy but it was the first term at Oxford in 1974. We were at breakfast and she said something about wanting to be prime minister,” recalled Miss Collinson.

Friends recall that for the first two years of undergraduate life, Mrs May had “many male friends but nobody who was special”.

She was part of a high-flying set that also included Alan Duncan, the former international development minister, and Damian Green, who answered to Mrs May when a Home Office minister and who is married to Miss Collinson.

“Theresa went out with other people,” said Miss Collinson, a successful family law barrister, “But none of them were quite what she wanted. None of them were special. Then in our final year, Philip came along. There was Philip and nobody else.”

The pair met after an introduction by Benazir Bhutto, who would go on to become Pakistan’s prime minister, at an Oxford Conservative disco in 1976, Mr May’s first year.

Miss Collinson describes Mrs May as “fun” to spend time with but others, who do not wish to be named, describe her even then as “reticent and self-contained”.

One contemporary said: “You didn’t feel you were ever on matey terms with Theresa, but Philip was easy to get on with.”

The contemporary said Damian Green was considered the brightest of the set, and destined for the highest office, adding: “I always wondered how it must have felt that Damian has been playing second fiddle to Theresa.”

When Mr May came on the scene, he was a year younger than his wife-to-be and two years below at Oxford. In his final year, Mr May would go on to become Oxford Union president, meeting the likes of the former US president Richard Nixon.

Mrs May was a keen debater. In reports of the Oxford Union debates at the time, she cut quite a figure.

In one debate on abortion she is described as “the statuesque Miss Brasier burning with emotion in her red dress”.

By 1977, Mrs May had graduated, taking a job in the Bank of England while her husband remained at university.

A gossip column in the student newspaper Cherwell suggested, somewhat mischievously, that by 1979, his final year, Mr May had been issued with an ultimatum by his girlfriend.

“I gather the same fate [of being rejected] awaits Philip if he hesitates any longer in announcing his intention to make an honest woman of the Vicar’s daughter,” claimed the diary.

Whatever the truth, by the time Mr May became Oxford Union president in the summer term of 1979, the couple were engaged.

In September 1980, both still only 23, they were married. Mr May would leave Oxford to  embark on a highly successful career in the City. Briefly, according to one friend, he dabbled in politics, becoming chairman of the Wimbledon Conservative Association.

But Mr May has steered away from politics, allowing his wife to take the lead.  Ever since those dark times in October 1981, when her father died so suddenly and tragically, he has remained her bedrock.

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