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‘It’s all about service’: Theresa May reflects on holding high office

24 June 2022

In an event organised to mark the 850th anniversary of the murder of St Thomas Becket, the Bishop of Oxford asks Theresa May whether Church and State are still uneasy bedfellows


Theresa May MP meets the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, at St Thomas of Canterbury, Goring-on-Thames

Theresa May MP meets the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, at St Thomas of Canterbury, Goring-on-Thames

CHURCH and state have not always been easy bedfellows. The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd Dr Steven Croft, and the former Prime Minister, the Rt Hon. Theresa May, met in an Oxfordshire church to discuss the sometimes fractious relationship.

Dr Croft began by asking Mrs May for her reflections on the Platinum Jubilee, a week earlier.

“The great thing [about the Platinum Jubilee] was that everybody was in such a good mood,” she said.

“First of all, because it really did mark everybody being able to come back together again. But secondly, it was just a wonderful event to be celebrating. The Queen has been on the throne for 70 years. It was an opportunity to mark what I think has been not just a reign of stability, which has been important for the country, but also a reign that shows somebody who has committed herself.”

There had been a special service in Mrs May’s village church in Berkshire. “They played the speech Her Majesty The Queen gave at the age of 21, when she committed herself to the service of the people. And I think what we see from her reign is that immense selflessness and dedication to duty and service to others, which I think is an inspirational example to us all.”

Dr Croft asked Mrs May about her weekly audience with the Queen when she was Prime Minister. What did this mean, in terms of the government of the country?

“It’s an important sort of linchpin,” said Mrs May. “I think it’s difficult for a lot of people from other countries to understand the way in which Her Majesty as head of state understands everything that’s going on, because, just like ministers, she does read her red boxes every day. So she has that understanding of what’s going on in Government.

“And also, of course, when you’ve been there for 70 years, you’ve seen your Prime Ministers come and go. I was her 13th,” she said, to laughter.

”That audience is the one meeting that a Prime Minister can go to and know that it isn’t going to be leaked to the press afterwards. And it is a conversation.”

Mrs May reflected on her visits to Balmoral, an invitation that the Queen extends to her Prime Ministers. “You see a much more personal side of Her Majesty there,” she said. “She genuinely wants her guests to enjoy themselves.

“We were [driving] one evening to one of her famous Balmoral picnics. Her Majesty was driving, and suddenly, there was an enormous stag in the way. And she slammed on the brakes and said: ‘What’s he doing here?’ Most drivers saying that would have meant, why is that animal in my way? But what Her Majesty meant was, why is he down at this low level of the hillside, because he should be up with the rest of them higher up the hill? It was a sign that she understands the animals on the estate. She has a genuine interest.”

Dr Croft asked Mrs May about some of the difficulties of leadership. “One of the consistent threads in the scriptures is that leadership is really, really hard,” he said. “You must have found in your years both as Home Secretary and Prime Minister leadership immensely demanding. Are you able to say what some of the principal challenges were?”

Mrs May replied that having been Home Secretary had helped prepare her, in a way that had not been the case for the two previous Prime Ministers; neither David Cameron nor Tony Blair had any previous ministerial experience. “I think that was an advantage having six years in the Home Office. And also, of course, I dealt with some of the security issues that the Prime Minister has to deal with,” she said.

“But when you become Prime Minister you suddenly realise that actually, even when you’re Home Secretary, or Foreign Secretary or Chancellor, or just a Cabinet minister, the Prime Minister is always there above you. And, at the end of the day, if there’s a difficult decision, you’ve always got to think, ‘Well, I think this, but what do you think, Prime Minister?’ And suddenly, it’s you: that leadership role is yours.”

Keeping the Cabinet together, dealing with Parliament and dealing with world leaders, was all down to the Prime Minister. “I think it comes home to you at the point where they come in and they say to you, ‘We’ve got some senior military personnel who would like to brief you.’

“Then they leave you alone in the room with three letters to sign. And you have to decide what you are going to be signing in these letters. Because these are the letters of last resort for the captains of our nuclear submarines. That is a moment when you realise truly what the responsibility of Prime Minister is about.”

Mrs May said that the “most difficult” decision for any Prime Minister was sending military forces into action. “I did that alongside the President of the United States and the President of France, when we sent our aircraft in to bomb the chemical weapons factories in Syria. And the point is that when you send military forces into action, you know that there’s a prospect that some of them might not come back; and, of course, for me, the six aircraft did come back, and nobody lost their lives.

(no credit needed)The Revd Ben Phillips, Vicar of St Thomas of Canterbury, Goring-on-Thames, introduces the event

“The reason I tell that story is that I attended a dinner about a month ago, and a man came up to me afterwards, and he said, ‘I was on one of the Typhoons that you sent into Syria. And I don’t know if they told you [that] they told us they thought only five would come back.’ I was sitting there thinking, ‘Yeah, I’m not sure they quite told me that.’”

Dr Croft said that the story of King Henry II and Thomas Becket illustrated that people who hold great responsibility and power didn’t always get on, and also that the holding of that power sometimes distorted people’s personalities. He wondered if her faith had sustained her in leadership.

“People often talk to me [about my faith],” said Mrs May. “I remember one of the newspaper editors asking, ‘Do you pray?’ And there’s a little bit at back of my mind that thinks, ‘Actually, how are you going to use my answer?’ And that’s where it gets more complicated. One thing I would say is, faith is part of you. It’s not something that’s completely separate. It is embedded.

“I think it’s an important thing, because it does determine how you respond in some of these cases. And I would say that it’s my faith that, I hope, helped me to think of power in a different way. Because it’s about service. It’s not about just thinking, I can do what I like, it’s actually about service to others.”

Dr Croft asked her about the issue of the environment. What were her reflections on what she had been able to achieve while she was Prime Minister, and also after COP26?

“I think if we want our children and grandchildren to grow up in a planet that we can recognise, we have to do something about this. It really is important,” said Mrs May.

“Obviously, I put the Net Zero by 2050 target into legislation as Prime Minister, which, I think, is very important. It’s set everybody’s minds really thinking about how they can achieve this. The target is about emissions, but the degradation of the environment is also an important issue: the number of species we’ve lost, and the number of different types.

“We need food security, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t maintain our environment, as well. There are lots of things that came out of COP26 that people didn’t expect, there was a bit of disappointment at the end, that not everybody absolutely signed up . . . to [all] the recommendations and commitments, but there’s big commitments on rainforest, for example, on methane. So, I think it was successful. But the problem is that the easy thing is to sign up to it. The difficult thing is then to do it afterwards.”

Dr Croft mentioned his interest in artificial intelligence and data. “It seems to me that both of those issues — environment and the use of technology — touch profoundly on what it means to be human,” he said. “I think, as a Church, we’ve been engaging with that question of what it means to be human for two millennia. And we have something to bring to this conversation.”

Mrs May asked Dr Croft if he thought that the bishops in the House of Lords were listened to on this sort of subject.

“I think so — provided we are not attempting to dictate what should happen, because I think those days are thankfully gone; and providing we are also listening,” said Dr Croft. “One the Labour peers recently left our committee, and he gave a passionate plea to me. He said, ‘We are grappling nationally and internationally with such profound ethical issues and we need to hear the voice of the bishops and faith communities in that, in order to help us navigate them.’”

Dr Croft then turned to the question of how the Church speaks out on political issues. “We’ve had a recent example with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments on the Rwanda situation. There have been others,” he said. “Were there ever times when you were tempted to say: ‘Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?’”

”No, honestly, not,” Mrs May said. “I mean, obviously, there are times when people say things and you think, Well, that’s not very helpful. Everybody has a right to just speak out, but I think it is difficult for clergy to tread a line between speaking out . . . but not being seen to be party political.”

She referred to her own upbringing. “I’m a clergyman’s daughter, and my father would never let me put any posters up outside the house, or openly canvass in the streets, because he said, ‘I’m here for everybody in the parish, regardless of all political views, and none.’ He didn’t want me to be openly party-political, because that might be attributed to him.”

That said, she thought there were times when bishops or archbishops spoke out when “they might put things in slightly different ways which would still get the message across, but with less [negative] reaction”.

Dr Croft agreed. “From the other side, it is genuinely quite difficult to get that right,” he said. “I know our present Archbishop and previous Archbishops have really agonised over those questions . . . when something should be said, but with the real awareness that it isn’t our role to intervene in a party-political process. But there’s an attempt honestly to reflect the insights of Christian faith into the life of the nation.”

Mrs May said it was “a bit much” if politicians objected to bishops speaking out. “If you if you think about it, the fact that we have bishops in the House of Lords is a recognition of the role of the Church and of the importance of hearing that faith-based view and analysis. So, I’m tempted to say it’s a bit much of politicians to say that the Church can’t speak out.”

Dr Croft said that “most of the time”, the House of Lords was an extraordinarily courteous place. “By and large, what I hear from colleagues in the Lords is that we need to hear the bishops speak more rather than less in that forum, particularly on the details of policy and ethical questions.

“Outside Parliament, where the bishops don’t have such a role in public life as we once did, it’s more challenging. I see stuff that comes to me when I’ve said things, and I know it’s multiplied hugely for the Archbishops when they when they stick their heads above the parapet.”

During questions from the floor, a teenager asked the Bishop if he would accept the position of Archbishop of Canterbury and Mrs May if she would be willing to become Prime Minister again.

“I’d have to think about it really seriously, in the unlikely event that I was asked, because if you offer your life in public service, and if you’re serious about following God’s call, then you need to think very carefully about things,” replied Dr Croft.

“But I had a semi-significant birthday a little while ago. And I would be very reluctant to take that step. And I love being the Bishop of Oxford, thank you very much.”

Mrs May’s answer was shorter. “Been there, done that.”

The conversation took place on 12 June at St Thomas of Canterbury, Goring-on-Thames, in Oxfordshire.


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