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Theresa May: quickfire questions on Jane Austen, late nights and Original Sin

In our quickfire round, the Prime Minister explains the appeal of Vivienne Westwood – and who she'd have her last supper with.

Jason Cowley: In your “nasty party” speech, you mentioned that of 38 new Conservative MPs elected in 2001, only one was a woman. You’ve campaigned for greater representation of women in parliament. So . . . is your party still nasty?
Theresa May: The Conservative Party has changed considerably. We have far more women now on our benches. Women2Win carries on and is continuing to provide support for women wanting to come into politics. But we’re seeing new women come in – you know our by-election victory in Sleaford and North Hykeham. A very good woman, a doctor, has come in and will be a great MP. I want to see more women coming forward  and coming in. We have had a step  change in the party.

Your proudest achievement in politics?

I think the Modern Slavery Act. It’s really important and I’m carrying it on. Obviously, I did that as home secretary but I’m continuing. And taking it internationally. You know I did a panel at Davos on modern slavery. I’m trying constantly to raise awareness of this.

Even prouder than becoming prime minister?

Well, when you say a “proud achievement”, I think of it in terms of what I’ve done for other people.

Austen or Brontë? To which you’ll say: which Brontë? So let’s say Austen or Charlotte Brontë?

I’ve read both, but if I had to choose it would be Austen. When I’m asked [about] my favourite book, I always say Pride and Prejudice. I sometimes hover between Emma and Pride and Prejudice [but I] always come out with Pride and Prejudice. The exchanges between Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy – the wit that she brings into those, I think is  just wonderful.

Why Vivienne Westwood?

She designs great clothes. They don’t always suit me. But where they do, I’m very happy to wear them.

You mentioned Clement Attlee in your conference speech. Why Attlee?

You go to the staircase here [in No 10]  and see the photographs of all the prime ministers and you think of the different achievements that they have. For Clem Attlee, it’s the NHS. That was an interesting period. Sometimes, people think of it only in one-party terms. But, of course, Butler’s Education Act was also important.

Other key books in your life?

Cookery books mean a lot to me because I love cooking.

Do you get time to cook?

Not as much as previously but I still cook.

Do you listen to music?

I don’t get that much time to listen to music. If I do, then it’s probably classical – Classic FM.

What would you eat for your last supper?

I haven’t got a menu for what I’d [eat] – perhaps more important is who I’d have it with.

Who would you have it with?

My husband, Philip.

Any guests? Not even Lizzie [Lizzie Loudon, her press aide who sat in on the interview]?

Well, much as I love Lizzie’s company, I think if it were my last supper, I’d probably just want to have it with my husband.

Mrs Thatcher used to work very late on her red boxes, as you do. Do you have a little nightcap, or something to help you sleep?

No, no, but I am a night person. Some people do it in different ways. David [Cameron] used to get up early but I stay up late. How late? It varies according to how much is in the box!

How do you relax?

You go on to a whole new level when you become prime minister. And, of course, I have done a lot of travelling around Europe because of the Brexit vote but also because of wanting to reach out to the rest of the world in an optimistic way. It is demanding, but it’s also worthwhile because you’re doing so much that really matters to people. That’s where the energy can come from. To relax, my husband and I like to walk. Cookery is a relaxation.

Your constituency remains important to you?

Absolutely. I still get time in the constituency. One of the great strengths of the system we have in the UK is that you can be prime minister, you can be a minister, you can be making decisions on legislation for the whole of the country, but you can go back to your constituency and you can really get a feel for the impact of the decisions that government is making, but also for the issues that people are facing. There’s a great strength to be drawn from people because, at the end of the day, the job I’m doing is about people.

Are you a Thatcherite or a One Nation Tory?

I would say I’m a conservative. I don’t try to put extra labels on this . . . Burke put it very well – I can’t remember the exact phrases he used – but if you believe in something and you want to protect it, actually you have to be willing to change it.

You’re a vicar’s daughter and you’re a believer. Do you have a sense, as Margaret Thatcher did, of Original Sin?

[She expresses surprise.] That is a question I hadn’t thought of for a very long time. I mean, one could get into a discussion about the sacrament of baptism and the impact that has on Original Sin. I’m not sure what you’re trying to get at.

In conservative philosophy, there is a sense that man is fallen and therefore one needs institutions and private property, the family, as bulwarks against anarchy or chaos.

I don’t see conservatism in quite those terms. We have some fundamental principles and values that drive us. But the question we must always ask is: how can we provide the environment, the framework in which people can benefit, in which people can blossom, in which people can build a better future for themselves and their families.

So the state has a moral purpose?

It’s about a sense of responsibility.

Read Jason Cowley's full interview with the Prime Minister here.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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