There’s a standard political memoir, isn’t there? It bubbles along as if scripted by a politically savvy AI engine: amusing and affecting anecdotes of the hero’s early life and university successes; feelings of inadequacy on reaching parliament; vivid descriptions of the scramble up the ladder, including quotable digs at rivals and opponents; the strange absence of the scandal for which the author will be mainly remembered; the self-aggrandising account of the author’s many successes in office, this part at wearisome length.
The standard-model memoir has three purposes: to settle scores, to nudge the dial of the historical verdict, and above all to win a publisher’s advance that is unlikely to be earned out. The resulting book is reviewed everywhere and read nowhere. The British public, who voted the author in, barely features, except as comic extras writing cranky letters and making ignorant observations at by-elections.
This book is the very opposite of such a memoir. Indeed, it is not really a memoir at all, but a painstaking, angry account of failure and injustice in British politics. The standard memoir is essentially defensive; this is on the attack all the way through. It is so boldly different it creates a mini-genre all of its own.
Theresa May’s roll-call of failure’s victims is horrendous. There are the 97 victims of the Hillsborough disaster, cover-up and smear. There is the uncountable number of scarred women and badly malformed babies from the pregnancy-testing drug Primodos; the 72 dead at Grenfell; the estimated 3.1 million British adults who suffered sexual abuse as children; the 1,400 abused children in Rotherham; the 122,000 people said to be living in modern slavery in Britain; the victims of the Windrush scandal; the family of the murdered Daniel Morgan; the 27,000 recipients of unlawful stop-and-search police interventions in a single year… and many more.
Plainly written, sourced almost entirely from official enquiries, and deficient in quotable character assassinations, this is a serious book by a serious woman. She attacks politicians, police and civil servants who “chose not to use their power in the interests of the powerless, but rather to serve themselves or to protect the institution to which they belonged”.
Already, by now, the reader may be thinking – hold on, this was someone at the top of the state for many years. Shouldn’t she be apologising for things that went wrong, rather than denouncing others, most of them more junior?
Good point – but I have never read a book by a senior politician that includes so many apologies. She apologises for her handling of the 2017 general election; for initially believing the smears about Liverpool fans after Hillsborough; for not properly focusing on the drug Primodos; for failing to visit the Grenfell families in the immediate aftermath of the fire; for her use of the phrase “hostile environment” about illegal immigrants, and so on. In a brief autobiographical early chapter she blames her lack of rhetorical verve on being brought up as a vicar’s daughter, constantly watching her tongue: “It has meant that I have been seen as being too careful with my words, not sufficiently willing to open up, robotic and uninteresting.” An anti-Boris Johnson, then?
The passages here that will be most thumbed and quoted are those about the long torture May (and the rest of us) endured as she tried and failed to get a compromise Brexit deal through the Commons. This period destroyed May’s leadership. Her case is that hardline Remainers – who, led by the then speaker, John Bercow, wanted nothing short of a second referendum to reverse the first – and hardcore Brexiteers, determined on a complete break, jointly wrecked the possibility of a deal that would have honoured the vote but allowed trade to continue relatively freely. Such a compromise might have avoided the dire economic plight of Britain today.
May is particularly fierce about Bercow, whose conduct she describes as that of a liar and a bully (“not the only MP to whom that description could be applied”) – echoing the findings of an independent inquiry in March 2022. “I am certain that he scuppered the Brexit deal,” she says. “What I find most shocking about John Bercow’s approach is that the speaker’s role is to uphold democracy. Yet here was a speaker who, it seemed to me, was deliberately using his power in the way that favoured those who wanted to try to overturn the democratic will of the people.” This, in turn, she argues, shattered many people’s faith in parliament.
Had Bercow not done this, “there was every prospect that we would have delivered an earlier exit from the EU, maintained better relations with our European partners and, above all, delivered an agreement which would have been more beneficial for Northern Ireland and hence for the future integrity of the UK than the one Boris Johnson signed.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Brexit argument, Brexiteers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg were approaching May in early 2019 to ask her to get the Queen to prorogue parliament or, if the Remainers won key votes, to refuse royal assent.
“Again, I refused. I resisted both of these proposals, not just because of the implications for the role of parliament, but mainly because of my firm belief that it would have been unthinkable to bring the monarch into these matters. By sanctioning the idea of prorogation, the hard-line Brexiteers were taking a sledgehammer to the British constitution.”
Her personal view of Johnson emerges through acid asides about him partying through lockdown as if the rules did not apply; about the need for politicians who had more than a “personal career interest” in complex issues; and about the ethics system – the problem being that “the system was designed to be operated by people of good intent and integrity”. “The successful politician,” she writes, “can too often be the one who appears to deliver the easy answer.”
The conversation around this book will inevitably focus on Brexit. But the rest of its content must not be ignored or elbowed aside. May has been haunted by a phrase used by the former Anglican bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, who chaired the independent panel on Hillsborough and titled his report on the experiences of the victims’ families “The patronising disposition of unaccountable power”.
Again and again, she calls out patronising, defensive police chiefs, scientists, corporate bosses or civil servants who do not appear to have the public good at the front of their minds.
Dismissive about Labour – she’s a proper Tory – May is prepared to be sharp about her own side, too. Looking at the wider picture after Grenfell, she complains that too many Conservatives came to see social housing as a matter of problem families and problem individuals, refusing to hear what they were saying. She thinks that, in Laurie Magnus, Rishi Sunak has appointed an ethics adviser without sufficient experience. And after a withering account of modern slavery in Britain she says of the current Prime Minister: “To my dismay, the government’s approach… has been driven by the desire to deal with illegal immigration rather than by the wish to stop slavery.”
[See also: You can thank Boris Johnson for Ulez]
In what might have been an unremittingly bleak account of British public failures, she finds heroes – more often heroines – to admire, from the campaigning Hillsborough families to the medical expert Dr Isabel Gal, who spotted the dangers of Primodos and was persecuted for it; or the youth worker Jayne Senior and the South Yorkshire Police analyst Angie Heal, who tried desperately hard to blow the whistle on the Rotherham child abuse cases, and were threatened for their pains.
Everywhere, good people and bad people. May is not the world’s most eloquent talker, but she’s an attentive listener: it was remarks by Lenny Henry at a Stephen Lawrence commemoration service that first brought home to her the bureaucratic nightmare being faced by the Windrush families. For their treatment generally, she now says: “I am profoundly sorry.”
Her book doesn’t have a bulky agenda of suggested policy reforms, largely because she sees politics as a question of character, unselfish dutifulness, quiet dedication – unfashionable virtues that can’t be legislated for. She clearly feels that her own background of service, inculcated from her parents, to whom the book is dedicated, plus a healthy dose of curiosity and scepticism, is the answer to most problems.
That is a fuzzy conclusion, which will be for many people profoundly unsatisfactory. But if we can imagine an alternative turn in our recent politics, without Brexit, it’s also possible to imagine an alternative, more respected Conservatism represented by people like May. I used to think her a bit humourless and cold. Then, long ago in a BBC canteen, after a sticky interview, I accidentally drenched the then home secretary in ice-cold milk, ruining a new and expensive trouser suit. She was not pleased. I sent an apologetic letter but received no reply. Shortly afterwards, I suffered my stroke and woke up after three days in intensive care to find a handwritten note from Theresa May, hoping that I’d recover and get back onto television quickly, “whatever that might mean for my dry-cleaning bill”.
Rather like that unexpected gesture, this is a pleasant surprise: a genuinely unusual, bold and important book. You can’t say that of many political memoirs.
The Abuse of Power: Confronting Injustice in Public Life
Headline, 352pp, £25
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This article appears in the 30 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Tax Con