An adoring crowd filled the Southbank Centre last night
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
“People expect you to be more of a celebrity,” Theresa May ruminated about the modern-day demands on frontline politicians. “I just want to talk about the issues.”
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The former prime minister was speaking to a packed house at London’s Southbank Centre to promote her new book, The Abuse of Power, which argues that those with influence squander their duty to the public in favour of self-interest. Two years ago May was judged to have been Britain’s joint worst postwar leader, but last night she gave off the confident air of a national treasure. Post-premiership, she has inexplicably reinvented herself as a Tory whom non-Tories can admire, if not for the specificities of her politics then at least for her apparent decency and earnest appeals for a better world — Rory Stewart in kitten heels.
The Southbank chat was, fittingly for vicar’s daughter May, conducted by media clergyman Richard Coles. His gentle line of interviewing — complemented by softball, pre-selected audience questions including a query as to how she has managed to “uphold integrity” among today’s rotten parliamentarians — brought us no closer to understanding a figure who concedes in her book that she has a reputation for “being too careful with my words, not sufficiently willing to open up, robotic and uninteresting”.
The Abuse of Power is not exactly a memoir, and despite occasional moments of candour May remains an oddly spectral figure in her own story, present only to condemn or to order an inquiry into the misconduct of others. In the case of the Hillsborough inquest, she rides on the coattails of the Labour ministry which championed and established it.
While Andrew Marr’s review in the New Statesman claims that she “owns her mistakes”, the ex-PM is still seemingly reluctant to apologise in the book. Everything — Windrush, Grenfell, the fallout from Brexit — is not just someone else’s fault but an active abuse of power. She reminds us of this by solemnly intoning at the end of almost every chapter that John Bercow/Donald Trump/the Metropolitan Police/the Taliban “abused their power”, a universal critique somewhat strained by its application both to MPs who opposed her Brexit deal and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
As a writer and an orator, May is the anti-Boris, her words devoid of metaphor or anything resembling a flourish. The Abuse of Power is a series of reports and judgments and inquiries, a mounting pile of paperwork which only further obscures the woman behind it. The book doesn’t have many jokes, but those there are have been helpfully signposted with an exclamation mark.
Speaking to Coles, May seemed more at ease than she ever was at the dispatch box, and more fluent than her prose might suggest. She even made some concessions, reaffirming her regret about not speaking to Grenfell Tower residents on her first visit to the site after the 2017 fire, and saying she was wrong to use the phrase “hostile environment” when discussing migration during her time as home secretary.
While she insisted yesterday that she has always been a conservative, because “the Labour Party is quite content to keep holding people down” and her side “tries to raise people up”, May also squarely positioned herself in the sensible corner. Public life is suffering thanks to “populist thinking”, which “is a problem because the answers to most things in life are not easy. Today’s populist politics expects the easy answer.” In a clip trailing a Times Radio interview set to be broadcast this afternoon, she claims that “I’ve always said that immigration has been good for the country,” though she made clear to Coles that “a lot of people coming are economic migrants.”
In many ways, this week’s BBC documentary State of Chaos, whose first episode covered the implosion of May’s government, revealed more about her than either her gloomy new book or cheery appearance at the Southbank. When asked by the programme, almost no former advisors, mandarins or ministers were able to argue that she was a success as PM. Former Tory leader William Hague claimed that “Theresa May’s a good person, but it’s hard to say she was a good prime minister.” Some might say that Nadine Dorries, demonstrating characteristic restraint, was closer to the truth about May’s time in No. 10: “it was an utter, catastrophic disaster.”