12 July 2016

It remains to be seen what kind of leader Theresa May will be, but she is far from a new face in Westminster. Nicola Hughes looks for clues about what kind of Prime Minister she will be, from the people that used to work with her.

Our next Prime Minister has huge tasks ahead of her: negotiating Brexit, unifying her party and realising a new policy agenda – not to mention government’s business as usual. Theresa May will have to become familiar with a much wider brief than she is used to. She has extensive experience at the Home Office – a notoriously tough job – but, as Ken Clarke noted in his recent off-guard remarks, she will now need to establish positions on a much bigger range of issues.

As part of our Ministers Reflect interview series, Damian Green – her campaign manager and formerly a minister at the Home Office – reflected on how she got her head around the Home Office brief, saying: “…she’s a Stakhanovite and works harder than anyone so got herself up to speed very, very quickly…”

Unifying both the country and her party was a central theme in May’s short leadership campaign and will be vital to securing a stable government and healing rifts between divided Leavers and Remainers. She has shown an ability to work effectively with people of different political hues, as the former equalities minister and Lib Dem Lynne Featherstone commented:

“…as we went on, we realised that we were both very assertive and determined women and very okay in our relationships and how you deal in a grown-up world…. where we disagreed on policy, which was quite often, except on violence against women where we were as one and she supported me on same-sex marriage, we would state the case and quite often find a very good compromise between us. It was a very good working relationship, much like you get in the real world, where you work with clients and contractors and there may be different points of view and you try and find a positive way through that is better for everybody and for the issue.” (This didn’t extend to Nick Clegg, with whom, according to former Home Office minister Jeremy Browne, May had a “dysfunctional working relationship”.)

What about her likely style as Prime Minister: collaborative or authoritarian? David Cameron was largely seen a fairly hands-off Prime Minister, happy for Cabinet ministers to lead on their policy areas and for his advisers to shape the strategic agenda. But given the scale of the challenges ahead, May could be tempted by a more activist approach, to grip issues and chase progress from the centre.

Damian Green suggested that, where trusting relationships were established, May was happy to delegate:

“…it was the case with Theresa that if you established trust with her, then she would let you do what she wanted you to do. And that… a lot of it is mechanics and personal chemistry and so on, but that is the important thing. One should never underestimate the importance of personal relationships in government’s decisions; it makes a huge amount of difference…”

However, he cautioned that: “Theresa is hard-working, a bit of a control freak… none of which could be regarded as a criticism. So you knew that it was not clever to try and go behind her back or just go against her”.

Green also praised the way in which May, who is often reported as an unshowy, steady politician, did not get distracted by the media: “It’s one of the things I admire the Home Secretary for, that she is not driven by a media agenda. That is not a universal truth amongst senior politicians.”

Finally, May also becomes the UK’s second woman Prime Minister. Whether this will advance women’s issues or not is a source of debate.

Jo Swinson, another former Lib Dem minister who worked with May on equalities issues, was impressed: “I remember quite early on I had a telephone call on a particular issue with Theresa May and just coming off the phone and thinking, ‘Whoa, wow’. Obviously I disagree with her politics on a range of issues but on issues like equality we actually got on very well because she is a passionate advocate of those issues within government long after she stopped having formal responsibility for that. But she is formidable. So I wouldn’t say I absolutely see her as my role model but there are certainly elements of that that I recognised as a very effective way of working.”

“Our country needs strong, proven leadership – to steer us through this time of economic and political uncertainty” said May at her speech in Birmingham this week. Over the coming months we will see how the leadership style she has developed at the Home Office plays out at Number 10.