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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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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