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Theresa May: Far from intransigent — unlike her aides (© Leon Neal/Getty Images)


There is usually a gap between how politicians are perceived by the public and the way they actually are in private. In the case of Theresa May, there is no gap. There is a chasm. She has a reputation for being cold, remote and robotic. She is not likeable, so the received view goes: she is merciless with her enemies and can be unkind even to her friends. Until the day after the election, she was at least thought to have the compensating virtue of effectiveness. She might not be particularly nice, she might even be a bit brutal, but she was an effective politician, one who delivered results and got things done.

The election result put paid to the perception that she has even that virtue. The disastrous result for the Tories is now universally thought to have been the consequence of Theresa May’s catastrophically bad campaign. She made herself the centre of the Conservatives’ pitch to the voters. That was an appalling misjudgment: she should surely have known that she has neither the temperament nor the personality to be the focus of any campaign. The more voters got to know of her, the less they liked her. Her reputation as a wise and effective politician who knows how to judge the mood of the people now lies in tatters. All that is left is the cold, hard, unfriendly, indeed downright odd individual to whom no one warms.

How accurate is that portrait? My own experience of Theresa May in private revealed a totally different person from the image. I was employed to write her speeches for a year when she was Home Secretary. I found her to be the opposite of the brittle, calculating politician of endless newspaper articles: she was a polite, thoughtful and thoroughly decent woman. She was always kind and helpful to me. She was never aggressive or difficult. She never lost her temper or shouted, and she never pulled rank (which she was of course entitled to do). She treated me as an equal, which, in the hierarchy of the Home Office, I was obviously not.

What is unquestionably true is that she lacks the personal charm of most politicians. When I was initially asked by her office to meet her for lunch, conversation was not easy. The meeting must have been a kind of audition, but I wasn’t after a job, and I had no idea I was going to be offered one. Somewhat to my alarm, I immediately discovered Mrs May has no small talk whatever. She was perfectly comfortable with silence, which I found extremely disorientating: most of the politicians I had met up to that point wanted something, and were not in the least shy about using a combination of offers and veiled threats to get it. Theresa May didn’t appear to want anything from me. Waiting for the menu, what I thought would be a brief pause in the conversation got longer and longer, and started to get embarrassing. I nervously asked her about crime figures, more in order to say something to fill the void than to acquire information. She answered simply, directly and persuasively. The initially icy atmosphere started to warm up. By the time the first course arrived, we were chatting. It would be too much to say it was an easy or relaxed conversation, but it was interesting.

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