What sort of person is our Prime Minister? It’s weirdly difficult to answer, despite the fact that Theresa May was home secretary for six years before entering No 10. But there are some clues. In an interview last month, she revealed her plans for Christmas Day: she would be sharing a glass of sherry with “older people who would [otherwise] be on their own”, at a church lunch in Maidenhead. Admirable, Christian and very English, I thought.
Frankly, it’s not something you can imagine David Cameron making time for. During the festive period a few years ago, a photo circulated of him and his family out on a country walk. They were posing with the actress Helena Bonham Carter and her director (now ex-) husband Tim Burton. It looked a bit desperate, like those “Cool Britannia” photo ops Tony Blair used to organise with the Spice Girls.
Unfortunately for Theresa May, there are less flattering clues. She can treat her subordinates abysmally. At a Spectator awards dinner in the autumn, I watched her humiliate the Foreign Secretary. It wasn’t pretty. Boris had been up on stage, accepting the award for “comeback of the year”. In a rambling speech, he had compared himself to an alsatian that had bitten Michael Heseltine and then been throttled on its lead, but survived.
Yet Boris clearly hadn’t absorbed all the details. When Theresa May got up to speak, she informed him that the dog’s comeback was short-lived: “Boris, the dog was PUT DOWN … when its master decided it wasn’t needed any more.”
It was a cruel joke that had the audience wincing, not laughing. “Not very edifying,” said a politician sitting next to me. But it had the desired effect. Afterwards, all anyone talked about was how ruthless – almost how deranged – Theresa May had seemed. You wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her.
Her speech was proof, I would argue, that Mrs May is Machiavellian – and I don’t mean that as an insult. As Jonathan Powell, the former Downing Street chief of staff, has written, “Machiavelli’s name is … synonymous with scheming, manipulation and a lack of principle.” But, argues Powell, the author of The Prince didn’t advise rulers to be cruel or immoral; he simply wrote honestly about what they needed to do to hold on to power. And a key piece of his advice was this: “It is much safer to be feared than to be loved, when one of the two must be lacking.” If Theresa May can’t be lovable, she has probably decided to be feared. It is safer.
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