I am not a fan of the press habit of defining our female Prime Ministers by reference to the occupation followed by their father; first we had Mrs T ‘the grocer’s daughter’ and now we have Mrs May ‘the vicar’s daughter’; I can’t quite recall what is was Mr Cameron or Mr Blair or Mr Wilson’s fathers did. I can, as it happens, recall what Mr Brown’s father did, as the press liked to call him a ‘son of the Manse’, so it might be, in Mrs May’s case, that it is the (to the metropolitan press exotic) ‘vicar’s child’ angle which intrigues. That reference has already been made to Mrs Merkel’s father’s occupation – Lutheran pastor – strengthens the view that the press thinks this background is significant.
In the case of our new Prime Minister, the press has already noted the statement that: “It [Christian faith] is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things”. It helped shape her approach to politics, which, she has already said, she sees as a form of public service:
‘I know some politicians seek high office because they are driven by ideological fervour. I know others seek it for reasons of ambition or glory. My reasons are much simpler. I grew up the daughter of a local vicar and the granddaughter of a regimental sergeant major. Public service has been a part of who I am for as long as I can remember.’
This helps explain what some ideologues in the Party find objectionable – that is her own lack of ideological baggage; she is firmly in the mould of those Conservative politicians who see politics as the art of the possible. Those hankering for another Mrs Thatcher (forgetting as they usually do how pragmatic she could be when needed) should look elsewhere. The Tory Right look on her with suspicion: she voted ‘Remain’; she voted for same-sex marriage; and she has made comments about Sharia law which disturb them. On all these things she is more in tune with popular feeling than the Right would like; but then the Right seem to have forgotten recent history. The sharp move in that direction under the successors to John Major led to a decade in the political wilderness. The Right may not have forgiven her for reminding the Party that it had picked up the label of the ‘nasty party’, but she was correct, and one of Mr Cameron’s services to his party and country is to have detoxified the Tory brand. That it has led some of the old Right off into UKIP is, to Mrs May, as to Mr Cameron, no bad thing. Sometimes it isn’t enough to get votes wherever you can.
She, like Cameron, is concerned about social inequality. His concern was always mocked by his opponents, partly on the reverse-snobbery ground that someone from a privileged background could not possibly care about the poor, and partly on the more justified ground that the inequalities of wealth which had grown sharper in the Blair/Brown years, had worsened under his stewardship.
One of the biggest problems facing the new Prime Minister is the sense that our politics is broken. The Referendum has laid bare the chasms growing in our society, with much being said about the way in which the poorer members of society feel isolated and abandoned; but it seems equally clear that in a different way, much of our intelligentsia feels the same way. We are divided by class, income and geographical location; the old idea that education could provide a route out of poverty to the brightest seems no longer to hold true, and the same is so of the idea that there is something acceptable about leaving a lot of less bright people in poverty. The conspicuous consumption of the very rich is (unless compensated for by ‘celebrity’, which involves having your entire life laid bare to the press) is increasingly offensive to the many who feel left behind, as are the growing inequalities of wealth. As that seems to be a phenomenon of contemporary capitalism, it remains unclear how Mrs May will tackle it, but the impetus to tackle it at all does seem one aspect of the way in which her Christianity influences her approach to politics.
That last is, perhaps, something the press does not quite get. Silly questions about ‘do you pray?’ or ‘does God tell you what to do?'(which never seemed to be aimed at Muslim politicians) miss the point, it is not on specific issues (the Bible has very little to say on supply-side economics and exchange-rate policies), but in terms of a general approach that the influence of faith is to be discerned.
This is as well in Mrs May’s case, as she has something of a via dolorosa to walk. Negotiating the details of ‘Brexit’ will not be a walk in the park, and she will need all her qualities as a ‘bloody difficult woman’ to succeed in that task. She possesses a tiny parliamentary majority, and part of her own party seems convinced that, despite their failure to provide one, only a Brexiteer should hold the keys to Downing Street; it will take but little for the tin-foil hat brigade to accuse her of selling them down the river (not that she’s get a price for them if she wanted to). She has the benefit of a divided and fractious Opposition, but even that is a mixed blessing, as it encourages her own Right-wing to imagine it is safe to rebel and kick over the traces.
Our new Prime Minister will need her Christian faith to provide her with the strength to carry out the public service to which she has found herself called; and I hope Christians of all persuasions might hold her in their prayers.