Theresa May is Britain’s most powerful woman — leader of the Conservative Government’s response to the immigration crisis, investigations into institutional child sexual abuse and tough reforms of the police service.
Yesterday however, speaking with Tina Brown at the Women in the World Summit in London, the UK Minister for Home Affairs happily admitted that she also loves clothes — if not as much as politics.
Asked by Ms Brown about the striking, blue asymmetrical dress she wore to deliver her controversial speech on migration at the Tory Party conference last week, May denied it was chosen as a “power” dress.
“I just thought I’d wear a dress,” she said to a gale of laughter. “I’m a woman and I like clothes. I like shoes and I like clothes.”
“I feel that one of the challenges for women in politics, in the world of business everywhere, is to be ourselves. To be able to say ‘You know what? You can be clever and you can like clothes. You can have a career and you can love clothes.’”
May conceded that she had not expected the blistering criticism and headlines she received after last week’s tough speech on immigration, arguing her message about the need for limits on numbers was one she had delivered before.
The speech was widely described in the British media as the Conservative’s return to being the UK’s “nasty party.”
According to May, however, politicians must acknowledge voters’ fears and anxieties about immigration: “If you talk to the public, it is a real concern for people. They need to see politicians and governments recognize the issue and be willing to do something about it,” she said.
“Obviously I went on about asylum system abuse and also on how to be more generous to those in genuine need but it is also important to say what the government is and should be doing in these areas.”
The longest serving Home Secretary in UK history, May took the reins of the Home Office — responsible for security and immigration — in 2010. She was also Minister for Women and Equalities for two years until 2012.
Widely seen as tough, uncompromising and, according to Brown “sometimes even scary”, May insisted she was not someone who responded directly to role models, such as Margaret Thatcher, nor did she have political mentors in the classic sense.
She said her husband, Phillip, a banker, was a great support and sounding board for her personally and professionally as he too is passionate about politics but does not work in the area.
The couple met while studying at Oxford University: “We met at a Conservative Party disco” she said to another peal of laughter. “Oh, that sounds racy doesn’t it?! Actually, we were introduced by the late Benazir Bhutto so we have shared an interest in politics for a long time,” she said.
“It is good to have someone who understands the stresses and strains but is doing something different. Sadly, children didn’t happen for us and I know for women balancing family and work life is difficult, but I don’t think that is what puts women off politics.”
May argued the rough and tumble of political life put many women off but also that men see it as a natural career while women need more of a “nudge, for someone who says to them ‘I think you can do it’.
The daughter of a vicar, May rejected outright the suggestion she acted on “moral crusades”, arguing she was most motivated in her political life by doing what she “feels is the right thing to do”.
Asked if she cared about what others thought of her, May said it was “easy to say things in order to be liked”: “It is much harder to do something that won’t be liked but because it is right. I try to do the right thing and what I believe on whatever issue.”
May said that on the issue of immigration, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, had made a point of highlighting the UK Government’s desire to maintain compassion and “reach out”.
“What is important — and David Cameron referred to this on Syrian refugees and resettling — is that this is an area where both the heart and the head must work together,” she said. “Of course I am conscious of the terrible traumas people are going through, fleeing from bombs, fleeing in fear of their lives, but what we do in response must also be practical and deal with the issues.”
Brown asked May if the case of the late Lord Brittan, wrongly accused of child abuse, suggested that police investigations into historic allegations may be veering into the realms of a witch hunt. “Is it a witch hunt of people who can’t defend themselves any more? Should [Labor MP] Tom Watson apologize to Lord Brittan’s widow?” she asked.
May stopped well short of demanding an apology, saying public discussion of such cases required people to be “careful of the language they use” but insisted that the impact of child abuse lasted a lifetime and all claims must be investigated.
As Minister, she has met and spoken personally to “many, many” survivors and victims of child abuse in an effort to “understand better” what they have been through and the impact on their — and their families’ — lives. “We have seen too many people who have been through abuse in different institutional settings, who tried to say something, who tried to speak out but were too often ignored,” she said. “These were people in state institutional settings they thought they could trust and that trust was shattered.”
Asked which of her raft of reforms in Government she is most proud of, May said she was very proud of her reform of the police service in the UK, particularly changes to the culture of the so-called ‘Met’.
Continuing child abuse investigations, she said, were important and, the reforms would now also ensure there are more police specially trained to investigate these areas including domestic violence.
She agreed the Home Office and her particular ministerial responsibilities had led her to deal professionally with so many “tough, grim, personal stories” but said she was very proud that the Home Office, as the department responsible for “keeping people safe” continued to have such a relevant and important role in U.K. affairs.