Theresa and Philip May: who really wears the trousers?
Reports that he's at the centre of a No 10 rift raise the question of how much power the British PM's husband wields
Philip May’s face was almost as inscrutable as his wife’s as he watched the UK government suffer the biggest parliamentary defeat in history from the public gallery. By avoiding eye contact throughout the exchange in the House of Commons, where May’s Withdrawal Agreement was beaten by an unprecedented 230-vote majority, many assumed the prime minister might have broken down had she exchanged glances with the man she calls her “rock”.
In fact, as a Downing Street insider later revealed, quite the opposite was true.
Inadvertently giving a telling insight into her 38-year marriage, the source said the real reason she couldn’t bear to look up at Philip was not because he would spark tears – that’s not the way they operate. It was more a case that he’d give her that “look” and she’d start a fit of nervous laughter.
While she shies away from discussing her private life, May has always been candid in discussing her relationship with the man she met at a Conservative dinner dance when they were at Oxford. Speaking about the death of her parents, she told BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs that she had “huge support in my husband and that was very important for me”.
She added: “He was a real rock for me. He has been all the time we’ve been married, but particularly then, of course, being faced with the loss of both parents within a relatively short space of time.”
Yet, with reports that the mild-mannered financier has caused a rift at No 10 by thwarting the idea of winning Labour support for a customs union, just how much power does Philip May actually wield?
Although Downing Street has dismissed as “utter bunkum” claims that Philip’s actions have sparked a row with Gavin Barwell, May’s chief of staff, the rumours do raise intriguing questions about who really wears the trousers in Downing Street.
Of course, this is nothing new. One cabinet minister once pointed to Samantha Cameron, saying she was the driving force behind many policy decisions. Known for her socially liberal views, ministers joked that Samantha was such a strong influence on her husband, former British PM Daivd Cameron, that she “will have a more liberalising impact on Cameron than Nick Clegg”. According to Tim Montgomerie, the political columnist, Samantha also had a “huge influence” on the decision to soften the government’s hardline approach on the Syrian refugee crisis.
And one can’t imagine Cherie Blair ever holding back in Tony’s self-styled “kitchen cabinet” meetings. Denis Thatcher famously said the role of a political consort should be “always present, never there” and, according to insiders, that’s precisely how Philip, 61, plays it.
One former aide described his “ninja-like” ability to be ever present without anyone taking “the blindest bit of notice”.
“Philip wields power, but only when the PM wants him to. He’s always there but never in your face. I’ve never once seen him angry.
“He’s cool, he’s calm, he’s clear – he never waffles. Everything he comes out with is useful and worth listening to. I remember at conference once he was running around making everyone tea. As a consequence, he hears everything that’s going on. That way, when everyone has left the room, the PM can turn to him and say: ‘Well, what do you think?’”
Although he has worked as a relationship manager for the financial group Capital International for more than a decade, Philip has become an ever more visible presence at No 10. When his wife took office, his employer issued a statement insisting: “He is not involved with, and doesn’t manage, money, and is not a portfolio manager. His job is to ensure the clients are happy with the service and that we understand their goals.” Indeed, workers based near his Belgravia office had grown used to the sight of the prime minister’s husband popping into the local Pret a Manger for a sandwich.
But not as much since the last general election – a political move, incidentally, that Philip was vehemently opposed to. According to one impeccably placed source: “In the early days, when Theresa May had Nick and Fi [her former joint chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill], you hardly saw Philip. He wasn’t really needed. But since the snap election he’s been on the scene a lot more, especially since Nick and Fi left.
“He goes on foreign trips now because she doesn’t want to do them without him. It’s ironic really because he was fiercely opposed to the idea of having another election. He literally said to Theresa: ‘We’ve only just got here, we’ve only just unpacked the furniture, why are you doing this?’”
Having chaired the local Conservative Party Association in Wimbledon, it was Philip who was tipped to go into politics. He took a step back when May, 62, was elected as the MP for Maidenhead in 1997, but has remained committed to the Tory cause. Hence that rumoured No 10 intervention last week. By reportedly siding with party chairperson Brandon Lewis and chief whip Julian Smith in encouraging his wife to reach out to the Brexiteers in her own party, rather than the opposition, the alleged ruckus serves as a reminder that Philip’s allegiances lie to the party as much as the woman running the country.
As one source put it: “Philip would have been as capable a politician as Theresa. You could swap them out and he’d be just fine. He’s very knowledgeable and committed to the party. He would disappear for a few hours during the election campaign, and when you’d ask him where he’d been, he’d say: ‘Just out canvassing’.”
While it has long been said that Theresa May “doesn’t have any friends” inside or outside politics, in fact the couple enjoy what one insider described as a typically Tory social circle. “They will meet other couples for dinner. They are quite close to Simon Dudley, the leader of the council in Windsor and Maidenhead, and his wife. It’s all very old-school, blue-blooded Tory. You know, the sort of people who buy £500 of raffle tickets and run supper clubs and enjoy cream teas. For them, the Conservative Party is their life. And they wouldn’t have it any other way. They love going out and meeting people together.”
Theresa also enjoys cooking for her husband – a small semblance of normality in her somewhat surreal world. As one aide revealed: “I remember the PM once delaying an important conference call because she had forgotten to make Philip his lunch. It was really rather touching, seeing how dedicated she is to him, even with everything else on her plate.”
Another insider described how the “homely, cosy” decor at the Mays’ home in Sonning provided an insight into their private suburban world, where they enjoy gardening, watching quiz shows like The Chase and Eggheads and listening to Test Match Special on BBC Radio 4.
Former grammar schoolboy Philip, who was brought up in Liverpool, also enjoys supporting the Reds – leading to another intriguing anecdote about the couple. Recalling a lunch she had arranged with the prime minister and her husband, the hostess went to great lengths to ensure Philip was sitting next to a Liverpool fan, revealing: “I told the guests, if you want the PM to enjoy the lunch, keep Philip happy. If Philip’s happy, then the PM’s happy. It really is as simple as that.”
– © The Daily Telegraph