Rosa Prince’s uncritical biography does little to uncover the real prime minister, finds Christabel Cooper

‘The Enigmatic Prime Minister’ is a highly appropriate subtitle for this new biography of Theresa May. Huge contradictions continue to surround her: between the party chairman who declared in 2002 that the Tories had to stop being seen as the ‘nasty party’ and the home secretary who sent round vans instructing immigrants to ‘go home’, between a politician who supported ‘Remain’ during the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, but who is now threatening to deliver the hardest of Brexits.

Rosa Prince’s almost completely uncritical biography does little to directly resolve these enigmas. Her thesis is that May was ‘born to serve’ and is keen to portray the grammar school educated vicar’s daughter as a hard-working public servant with the implied contrast to the entitled public school set surrounding David Cameron. There is little personal detail in the book, leaving it as a rather arid chronological narrative of May’s political career. But this in itself is useful – for a politician who has occupied some of the most prominent roles in opposition and government – ‘Submarine May’ (as per predecessor famously dubbed her) has maintained an unnervingly low profile.

May’s devotion to the Conservative party and its fortunes comes through strongly in the biography, and it was this that prompted her conference speech of 2002. Nevertheless it is worth remembering that – at the time – the speech was met with widespread criticism, and May subsequently continued to support leader Iain Duncan Smith in his socially illiberal agenda.

As home secretary from 2010, May was seen by her admirers as diligent, competent and stubbornly prepared to defend her corner when challenged. Others accused of her of being controlling and overly dependent on a narrow cabal of advisers. Her underlying political beliefs continued to be opaque, with a former adviser saying: ‘With Theresa, it’s quite difficult to work out her ideology, she’s more driven by a moral compass than anything else.’ Judging from her time at the Home Office, that moral compass points towards a rather nostalgic vision of Britain, complete with fewer migrants and a lack of interference from European institutions. Despite her nominal support for Remain, May’s sentiments were always more in tune with Brexit.

As prime minister, May currently enjoys high approval ratings. Comments from colleagues such as ‘she’s not even slightly clubbable’, and Ken Clarke’s description of her as a ‘bloody difficult woman’ have ironically served her well, suggesting strength and independence. But she now faces the difficult task of delivering on her Brexit promises in tough negotiations which will determine the long-term future of Britain. Worryingly, her biography suggests that the notoriously introverted prime minister struggles with recruiting allies outside her immediate circle, and that she is uncomfortable with trading favours and with persuading, engaging and compromising.

May might well have been born to serve. But despite the best efforts of a well-disposed biographer, there is little evidence that she was born to lead.


Christabel Cooper is a member of the Progress strategy board. She tweets at @ChristabelCoops


Theresa May: The Enigmatic Prime Minister by Rose Prince

Biteback Publishing | 416pp | £20