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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

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear