Wednesday 23 October 2019

John Downing: 'The vicar’s daughter has always tried to get on with it'

A steely demeanour amid attacks from all sides defines May's style

British Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement outside 10 Downing Street. Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images
British Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement outside 10 Downing Street. Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images
John Downing

John Downing

As she falteringly tried to roll that boulder of an unloved Brexit deal uphill, Theresa May's recurring catchphrase amid the chaos was: "The British people just want us to get on with it."

It has been a life mantra for this "vicar's daughter" who celebrated her 62nd birthday on October 1. As a schoolgirl, just weeks after she won a scholarship to a prestigious secondary-level grammar school, it was transformed into a catch-all comprehensive school, provoking some turmoil.

But she just "got on with it", winning a place at Oxford to study geography, and later moving on to a series of heavy-hitting jobs in banking and finance. Her debut as an MP in summer 1997 coincided with the start of a long wilderness period for her Conservative Party.

In the wake of Margaret Thatcher's rampant success over almost two decades, and John Major's battling continuation for another seven years, the Tories had finally hit the buffers.

But she showed herself to be a tough political operator, who as chair of the party memorably delivered some home truths to colleagues at their annual conference in 2002. As a conviction "one-nation Tory" in the mould of the consensual Edward Heath, she announced that they had become known as the "nasty party" among ordinary voters.

When the Tories finally regained power in 2010, she became the UK justice minister, or secretary of the interior. When her party surprisingly won an overall majority in the summer 2015 general election, prime minister David Cameron retained her in that job.

Soon she was the longest-serving UK justice minister in 60 years, a job often rated as the graveyard of political careers. But at the time, she replied to a colleague's inquiry about celebrations, with that mantra: "Oh no, I just want to get on with it."

She has spent over 20 tough years in UK national politics, and since autumn 2016 has been the country's only second ever woman prime minister, known across Europe for trying to front up the Brexit case at a series of EU leaders' summits.

Through all this she has become known for her no-nonsense style, keen attention to detail, and a very steely demeanour.

She does not often court popularity and has on occasion shown a blunt-speaking side, taking on the police unions in the justice job.

The sobriquet "vicar's daughter" comes from her late father who was a popular Church of England clergyman with beliefs close to those of the Catholic Church. Rev Herbert Brazier was tragically killed in an accident in 1981 and her mother, who had long suffered ill health, died a year later.

One story goes that she was introduced to her future husband at a Conservative Party disco in Oxford, with the introductions being done by the future prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, who was a fellow student.

At the time, Philip May appeared to be the more interested in politics, making a name for himself in debating, but he has since carved out a lucrative career in financial services, and is happy to support her high-flying public career.

Mrs May has spoken of the couple's sadness at not having children. They share a love of hillwalking, cricket and cookery, among other things. For many years Mrs May has "got on with" a battle against type-one diabetes, which requires daily insulin doses.

Her pragmatic, non-showy side was again in play when she moved "through the middle" to take over as Conservative leader and prime minister in September 2016. A group of showboat males, chiefly Boris Johnson, bragged and betrayed one another, while she ploughed on. Her final opponent, Andrea Leadsom, made a number of key errors and wisely withdrew, leaving Mrs May as the last woman standing.

That turned out to be the easy part. She had been a luke-warm Remain advocate in the ill-starred June 2016 referendum. Now, under pressure from her own radical Brexiteers, she set the bar unfeasibly high in the EU-UK divorce talks, insisting on quitting both the EU single market and customs union. The UK negotiators were left in a parlous position with unclear instructions and little support.

Her best idea - to strike out with a general election in June 2017 - turned out to be a dismal failure and laid the foundations of all her current problems. She over-relied on the poor position of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, allowed far too long a lead-in, and campaigned weakly.

Mrs May returned as a minority prime minister and soon became a hostage of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who were totally opposed to a sensible solution to keeping the Northern Ireland Border open.

With the DUP increasingly fractious, her own party rebels becoming more emboldened, and Labour leader Corbyn eyeing her job, things became increasingly impossible. Ireland was ensconced throughout on the EU side of the fence, where there was a deal of goodwill, but strict limits to what help might be on offer to the embattled prime minister.

That general election loss came at a very high cost. Her authority in her own party was destroyed and on mainland Europe it was plain she would have huge problems selling any deal she would make.

It was the worst of all worlds and made the drama of recent days inevitable. It has compounded all our uncertainties.

Irish Independent

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