When people wonder how the Prime Minister finds the strength to endure repeated tribulations, they usually overlook the indispensable role played by her husband, Philip May. That is exactly how he would wish it. The 61-year-old City veteran epitomises the preference for understatement, to the point of self-effacement, which runs through a certain layer of the English middle class. “Both of them are anti-histrionic,” a cabinet minister says of the Mays. “It’s all about getting on with it.”
Philip vindicates his wife’s profound aversion to imposing her personality on the nation – something that came naturally to Conservative leaders such as Disraeli, Churchill and Thatcher, but which to the Mays would feel bogus and boastful. This can be mistaken, by the casual observer, for weakness. But as Keith Simpson, the Tory MP for Broadland in Norfolk, who has known the Mays for 20 years, says: “Neither of them are quitters. He will back her for as long as they jointly decide she can carry on.”
When David Cameron was pressing Theresa to tell him which side she would back in the 2016 EU referendum, she replied: “I haven’t even told Philip.” This form of words meant she had not yet made her mind up, not that she was hiding her intentions from her husband. Philip is her sounding board for every significant decision and speech. During the recent attempted vote of no confidence in May, he presided over war-gaming meetings in No 10 while his wife flew back from Europe.
In the beginning, it seemed he would be the one who went into politics, while she would have a career in the City. Philip arrived from Calday Grange Grammar School in the Wirral, Merseyside, at Lincoln College, Oxford University, in 1976, to read history, and won the freshers’ debating competition at the Oxford Union. Benazir Bhutto (soon to become president of the Oxford Union, and a future prime minister of Pakistan) identified May, Alan Duncan (now a Foreign Office minister) and Michael Crick (of Channel 4 News) as the stars of the new intake.
Stephen Brooks, who was also at Lincoln and also involved in the Union, says of the young Philip May: “He was extraordinarily ambitious and a bit pompous with it all.” Theresa, who is 11 months older than Philip, has related how they were introduced to each other by Bhutto: “I hate to say this, but it was at an Oxford University Conservative Association disco… this is wild stuff.”
During the 2017 general election, Philip recalled, for the benefit of viewers of The One Show, his first impression of Theresa Brasier, who in 1974 had gone up to St Hugh’s College to read geography: “What a lovely girl – and she still is.” One of the presenters pressed him: “Did you fancy her instantly?” He replied: “Absolutely… It was love at first sight.” In 1980, just after he left Oxford, Philip and Theresa were married by her father, the Reverend Hubert Brasier.
At this point, he was thought far more likely to enter national politics, and rise to a high level, than she was. Duncan, May and Crick all became, in that order, president of the Union. Brasier, though regarded as the best female debater of her generation, and after Oxford an employee at the Bank of England, was much less prominent than her future husband.
Philip and Theresa, who have no children, discovered a shared love of canvassing for the Conservative Party. Some aspirant MPs consider themselves too grand to spend more than a minimum of time on the doorstep. The Mays continue to devote part of their weekends to this unshowy form of politics.
As late as 1986, Philip can be found, at the age of 29, delivering a sober pro-European speech to the Conservative Party conference. But by now he had a quietly successful career in the City (he has worked as an investment relationship manager for Capital International for the last decade), and it was his wife who became a local councillor in Merton, in south London, in the ward where he was chairman. In 1997, five years after fighting a seat in Durham, she was elected as MP for Maidenhead, Berkshire.
Because Theresa’s parents both died soon after they were married, Philip’s parents took on the role of providing quiet encouragement to their daughter-in-law, keeping a scrapbook that recorded her early political achievements.
No outsider can know the full truth about a marriage. Philip still works two or three days a week in the City, but also leads a team of telephone canvassers for the Conservatives. Through him, the Prime Minister has a direct connection with the unsung party membership, and with the voters whose support they solicit.
And with him, she can discuss any problem in confidence. Philip was, a close observer says, “quite nervy” about the idea of an election in 2017. After she nevertheless went ahead, and squandered the Tories’ majority, he supported her. For Theresa May, as she endures the epic trials of Brexit, her husband’s unfailing sympathy is the greatest consolation.
This article appears in the 23 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s running Britain?