Who is Theresa May? Ken Clarke famously described her in an unguarded moment as a ‘bloody difficult woman’. Her favourite fashion designer, Vivienne Westwood, thinks she’s ‘awful’. And it has variously been said that she is ‘fundamentally unknowable’, ‘aloof’, ’reticent’, ‘self-contained’ and ‘sphinx like’.
When she was officially appointed Prime Minister, reporters scrambled to write pen-portraits of this woman suddenly sprung to highest office, an extraordinary elevation which seemed to fluster her no more than the weekly Waitrose shop.
Fleet Street’s finest were able to reveal surprisingly little. The Daily Mail’s Robert Hardman dutifully trooped off to the PM’s village, Sonning, in Berkshire. There, he reported, she is a regular church-goer, and likes to pop into the local butcher for a few sausages. She and her husband Philip are leading lights in the village hall appeal.
The Telegraph revealed the scintillating fact that she was the longest-serving Home Secretary in 50 years, and reminded us that, as the first female chairman of the Conservatives, she said it was seen as ‘the nasty party’ – while wearing a pair of now famous leopard print kitten heels. And the BBC recorded that she is the daughter of a Church of England vicar. Despite their best efforts, and the acres of silly season feature pages to be filled, she remains something of an enigma.
But I know who she is, and can take you behind the scenes. Theresa is the product of an Oxford women’s college and thus essentially an intelligent woman’s woman. Both Theresa and I read geography at St Hugh’s, Oxford, fifteen years apart. She has been shaped by the blue-stocking rigour of college life, the demanding Oxford tutorial system, the liberating freedom of an all-women environment, and the forensic intelligence of the academic teaching staff.
I was Westminster Correspondent at the Sunday Times when May first became an MP in 1997, and we reminisced about our time at St Hugh’s over lunch at the now defunct political watering hole Simply Nico. Nick Clegg reportedly complained that May had no small-talk. He also apparently called her ‘a bit of an Ice Maiden’ – a classic out-gunned male put down. We seemed to get on just fine.
She had some interesting tales to tell about smuggling men into the college, at a time when boyfriends were still nominally banned from undergraduate rooms. We discussed how it has perhaps been forgotten how important women’s colleges were to the advancement of women, and how they struggled to assert their place at the male-dominated University.
It soon became clear to me that Theresa May – then Theresa Brasier — was defined by her time at Oxford. There is something quietly academic about her demeanour. She is very proper, unflinchingly polite, dependable and modest, and extraordinarily sharp and driven. She is as English as a Rupert Brooke poem, lofty as the dreaming spires, and perfect headmistress material. A handwritten thank you note for lunch appeared on my desk later that very same day.
Many of our politicians are the product of Oxford or Cambridge of course – but it is particularly being at a women’s college that has been the making of May.
The first women’s colleges were established in Oxford during the late nineteenth century. Lady Margaret Hall and Somerville (Margaret Thatcher’s alma mater) opened in 1879, followed by St Hugh’s in 1886 and St Hilda’s in 1893, then St Anne’s. The five women’s societies were granted full collegiate status in 1959. All colleges have admitted both men and women since 2008, and St Hugh’s went mixed in 1986.
Offering a university level education to women was a radical aspiration when St Hugh’s was founded, and it retains a reverence for the great female academic pioneers. May went up to St Hugh’s in 1974. Much had changed there since its inception. But women’s colleges were still liberating establishments, where women could be academic without interference – a haven in a world where a woman’s place was largely in the home or on a secretarial course. Women could go to breakfast in their dressing gowns, and study without restraint. They did not have to flirt or compete with men. It was a place of female achievement: the first women to achieve First class degrees in english, history, jurisprudence and physics went to St Hugh’s. One contemporary of May’s says: ‘We weren’t girly. If you got into Oxford as a woman back then, you had a certain inner strength.’
May took a particular interest in debating, taking on the presidency of the Edmund Burke Society. Lord John Patten, former Education Secretary, was a geography fellow, apparently influencing May in her political beliefs, and her tutor was Marjorie Mary Sweeting. She was not outstanding academically – the college annals record that she achieved a second in her Mods (Oxford jargon for first year exams) in 1975 and she went on to gain a second at Finals.
She attended social events in the Morden Hall, and wore sub fusc – the bat-like academic dress – to formal dinner. There, the top table was populated with women, and a handful of male academic guests – enjoying the well-stocked college wine cellar. Theresa made firm friends at Oxford, including Alicia Collinson, who also read geography. ‘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. Pat Frankland, who was also at St Hugh’s with May, remembers: ‘I cannot remember a time when she did not have political ambitions. I well remember, at the time, that she did want to become the first woman prime minister and she was quite irritated when Margaret Thatcher got there first.’
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.
Back at St Hugh’s last week, I chatted with the college principal, the Rt Hon Dame Elish Angiolini and various academics about Theresa’s time at the college and meteoric ascent. We sipped champagne on the lavender-scented terrace, and they talked with ivory-towered horror at media requests to film the college library in the wake of May’s victory, but glowed with pride that an old girl had risen so far. As I absorbed once more the heady mix of self-satisfied achievement and intellectual confidence that exudes from the very stone at Oxford, I was struck by how much Theresa has clearly been influenced by being at a women’s college, where the atmosphere was one of no-nonsense academia.
It is now a mixed-sex college, and the atmosphere is subtly different, the arrival of men heralding drinking competitions, a host of new distractions, and a corresponding slump in results (from which it has thankfully recovered). But St Hugh’s has produced a whole generation of women with steel in their bones (yes, ‘difficult women’, Mr Clarke). The Nobel Peace Prize Winner and Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Labour pioneer Barbara Castle and the suffragette Emily Dickinson are old girls. So too are the human rights lawyer Amal Clooney and former education minister Nicky Morgan,
On Desert Island Discs, when questioned on why she was not ‘clubbable’ and seen in Westminster’s many bars, Theresa answered: ‘I am very clear that a woman should be able to do the job as themselves, and not feel they have to walk like a man’. But this has sometimes created problems – especially when men and the media prefer flirty, softer women. ‘She doesn’t flirt,’ a male Conservative MP told Elizabeth Day at the Observer in 2014. ‘She doesn’t use sex as a weapon. Thatcher did, by all accounts. Theresa is almost asexual. I think we’re dealing with a mature, wise, experienced and competent politician but what she lacks, I think, is warmth and personality on first meeting.’
But does she care what people think of her? Herein lies her secret weapon – I don’t believe she does. She expects to be appreciated for getting the job done. I spoke to a senior woman at the Government’s joint International Counter-Terrorism Unit, who worked closely with Theresa. She told me that she believes Theresa is an intelligent woman’s woman, with a bad public image. ‘She comes across as frosty, like Hillary Clinton,’ she says. ‘But intelligent women love working with her, because she is extremely sharp, gets on with the job, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly.’
I have spoken to several female MPs this week who reiterate this, but also speak of her kindness on a personal level. Unlike Margaret Thatcher, she is able to get on with other women. She is an unapologetic feminist, and in her first reshuffle, it became clear that she is also ruthless too. She has often been compared to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and there is something refreshing in a female politician unburdened by the need to please. ‘My whole philosophy is about doing, not talking,’ May recently told the Telegraph. ‘I’ve always championed women in politics. We just get stuck in; politics isn’t a game, the decisions we make affect people’s lives.’
Unlike David Cameron, George Osborne and their public school cronies, May sees Twitter as a waste of time. Nor is she a fan of the old boys’ network associated with the Tory party. ‘There’s an obvious reason why I’m not part of the old-boys’ network — I’m not an old boy,’ she has said. ‘I’ve always taken the same approach in every role I’ve played, which is I’ve got a job to do, let’s get on and deliver.’
Some might say, about time.
Zoe Brennan was European Correspondent at The Press Association, Westminster Correspondent at The Sunday Times, and is now a feature writer at The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph.