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Angela Tilby: Theresa May shows the purpose of politics

22 September 2023

Alamy

Theresa May is interviewed by Andrew Marr on LBC, last week

Theresa May is interviewed by Andrew Marr on LBC, last week

THERE she is, Theresa May, in a military-style navy jacket over a smart sapphire top trimmed with golden brown. At the end of an exaggeratedly long left arm, she holds a small lily of the valley. She looks serious, even solemn; but there is just a hint that a smile might break out soon. Saied Dai’s portrait of the former Prime Minister has recently become part of the Parliamentary Art Collection, and will eventually hang in Portcullis House. “A good painting”, the renowned portrait painter commented, “needs to be a revelation, and also, paradoxically, an enigma.”

Mrs May’s book The Abuse of Power (Headline) is not a revelation, but nor is it the usual self-justifying political memoir. Rather, it is an argument for what politicians are for. Too often, Mrs May suggests, they forget that they are elected to serve their constituents — and, indeed, the whole country. Instead, they prioritise their own interests and those of the institutions to which they are connected. This is an abuse of power, and she goes on to give examples of such abuses during her time as a serving politician. But it does not come across as revenge, more as a well-constructed sermon on the proper duties of MPs.

Of course, as Prime Minister, she failed. Her attempted Brexit deal was loudly rubbished by many of her own party and did not get through Parliament. She lost her majority in the 2017 General Election, probably because of a brave, if politically misguided, attempt to solve the social-care crisis. She still thinks that her Brexit deal would have been better for the country than what we have now, arguing, to my mind convincingly, that the 48 per cent of us who voted to stay in the EU in 2016 deserved to have some consideration in the final outcome.

But her proposals were squeezed out by Remainers who were demanding a second referendum, while Brexiteers clamoured for a hard exit. Her resignation, in 2019, was followed by Boris Johnson’s reign, its final implosion making way for the brief disaster of Liz Truss.

Listening to Mrs May talking about her book with Nick Robinson on the BBC’s Political Thinking podcast, I was impressed by her resilience and integrity. It was refreshing to have a political memoir that was not designed to settle old scores and attract big lecture fees. She has continued as a constituency MP, diligently raising issues, questioning conclusions, and, when off duty, working through an astonishing number of cookery books. Of course, there were mistakes; the “hostile environment” policy was not her shining hour.

But what her book reveals is that she takes the duties of democracy more seriously than many of her peers. Politics, for her, is a genuine vocation, an expression of a low-key but genuine Church of England faith. Dai’s portrait shows her steel, her reticence, and her humanity. The enigma remains. But there is also revelation.

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