As the then women’s editor of the local paper, when a female politician was visiting the North-East, it was my job to interview her. It was March 2007 and the interviewee was Shadow Leader of the House of Commons and party chairman – none other than the now Prime Minister Theresa May.
What struck me was her ordinariness. The visit, in the run-up to local elections, was to promote women2win, Mrs May’s campaign to encourage more women into politics. She was friendly and relaxed, perching on a desk to deliver her message; appeared genuine, and spoke common sense, highlighting the difficulties for women of having to spend time away from their families at Westminster and in their constituencies.
In an observation which now seems prophetic, given Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal from the leadership race, she alluded to how the whole climate of politics might be off-putting, saying, “I think women are concerned about the intrusion into people’s private lives by the media.”
On the subject of her flamboyant footwear, she was good-humoured, saying, “I’ve always liked nice shoes and I don’t see any reason why a politician should conform to an image of what they should be like.”
The news that this little-understood, shoe-loving Home Secretary was to be Prime Minister was greeted, at least in some quarters, with a kind of sneering schoolboy humour; The Sun declaring, “Heel, Boys” beside a picture of those famous leopard-print kitten heels. It also ran a piece on Mrs May’s “12 best looks to date” and referred to her “whipping” male colleagues into line, casting her in the role of a dominatrix.
Even before this, the condescending tone had been set by Ken Clarke, who described Mrs May as “a bloody difficult woman”, and as soon as she started looking like a serious contender, commentators were quick to make the all-too-obvious, none-too-flattering comparisons with Mrs Thatcher.
How Mrs May has responded has been with characteristic silence. Both during and since the referendum campaign, she has kept her cards close to her chest, not allowing herself to be drawn into the mire that famously prompted her, at the 2002 Conservative Party conference, to refer to it as the “nasty party”.
When, last weekend, Andrea Leadsom became embroiled in controversy following her comments on Mrs May’s childlessness, she again said nothing, merely standing back and allowing events to unfold. It may be that not having children wasn’t a choice – when asked about this in the past, 59-year-old Mrs May said, “you accept the hand that life deals you,” suggesting that she might have welcomed motherhood – and if so, the comments must have been particularly hurtful. Yet her response was reported gratitude for Mrs Leadsom’s text of apology and praise for her “dignity” in pulling out of the race.
This quiet stoicism – evident from our meeting – is what sets Mrs May apart from other key players like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, and what has enabled her to take the reins as Prime Minister untainted. The daughter of a vicar and granddaughter of a soldier, she has said that public service is in her blood, and it seems that this – and not blind ambition – is what drives her.
When we met in 2007, Mrs May had considered running for the Conservative leadership following Michael Howard’s departure but had decided against this, joining David Cameron’s camp instead. By way of explanation, she said, “He is genuinely a modern, young family man. I think it’s good for politics.” That seemed to be Mrs May’s overriding concern – and she was prepared to sacrifice the chance of glory to that end.
Her near-20 years in Parliamentary politics have borne out her altruism. A liberal with a social justice agenda, she counts among her greatest achievements as Home Secretary inquiries into the Hillsborough tragedy, undercover policing and child sex abuse. She has also championed same sex marriage – one of the first high-profile Conservative MPs to do so – and served as Minister for Women and Equality.
As Prime Minister, we can expect her to follow through David Cameron’s life chances strategy with its focus on childcare, education and rehabilitation for offenders. We can also expect to see more women in frontline politics – though Mrs May, who, in 2007, said she was against all-women shortlists – will want to ensure that every appointment is made on merit.
What, with any luck, we might ultimately witness is a sea change in politics, with a greater emphasis on substance over show and a return to the old-fashioned values of service and humility. If it takes a woman in leopard print heels to achieve this, then so be it.