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The quietly impressive rise of Theresa May

Tim Montgomerie

May Theresa Home Office

In today's Guardian Allegra Stratton profiles Theresa May and concludes, as many increasingly are, that she is one of Cameron's most impressive performers. The early signs were good. Last July I blogged that she was taking big steps forward in those famous high heels. Since then she has consolidated her position at the top of the ConHome league table - joining what I've called Cameron's Magnificent Seven.

As Allegra's profile makes clear, Theresa May does not follow the conventional political formula. A very private person, she has few political friends. I remember her dining with her husband, Philip, night after night during the opposition years. The endless dinners with colleagues and journalists are not for her. Those Westminster villagers who have eaten with her, routinely report the experience as not particularly fruitful. Theresa May doesn't do gossip. She sticks to the party line. People mistake all of this for a lack of warmth but probably the kindest letter I ever received from anyone in politics came from Theresa. It was after I lost my job working for Iain Duncan Smith in 2003. We'd been in the bunker together. She had been party chairman to IDS when he was leader. I had worked with her as Iain's chief of staff. She was faultlessly loyal and hard-working during what was an enormously difficult time for the party. The letter was full of details that demonstrated a humanity that touched me greatly at the time.

Hard work remains an explanation for her success. The Home Office has been a graveyard for many political careers. I'm told that she has a Thatcheresque work ethic - often not retiring until 2am, when her red boxes are all processed.

Focus is her other great asset. She knows she'll succeed as Home Secretary if she reforms the police and controls immigration. She is hugely helped in these two tasks by having two of the frontbench's most able ministers at her side - Damian Green and Nick Herbert. It is, of course, too early to know whether she'll succeed but she is certainly determined to do so. Because she is something of a closed book to many of her colleagues they underestimate her. She "eviscerated" Vince Cable at a meeting where the Business Secretary came under-prepared to unpick the Coalition Agreement's immigration policy. She demonstrated a command of the issues that stunned the people at the meeting and, because she has no need to be loved, only to prevail, she did not spare Mr Cable's blushes.

There is talk that the woman who, in opposition, held the Transport, Environment, Local Government, Family, Culture, Media & Sport, Work and Pensions, Education and Leader of the House roles, may one day become PM. It is certainly was in her mind when she was in her twenties. I don't know if it's still her ambition but alongside Jacqui Smith, Margaret Beckett and, of course, Margaret Thatcher she is one of only four women to hold one of the greatest four offices of the British state. Could she go further? Cameron's great advantage is that he has no serious competitor to his position - inside or outside the Conservative Party. But should he fall under that proverbial bus you shouldn't write May off.

Unlike George Osborne, who is strategically building support across the party, Theresa May is a lone ranger. I would not know whether she'd easily even find a campaign manager. But this is a woman who is well liked in her constituency - fighting off a once strong Liberal Democrat threat. The party's donors like her. When she says she'll do something, she does it, one told me.  She upset many grassroots activists with her often misinterpreted "nasty party" remarks but it shouldn't be forgotten that, when Michael Howard attempted to take the vote away from members in the election of Tory leader, she was one of the defenders of party democracy. On balance, I wouldn't expect her to become party leader but if, somehow, she did, it wouldn't be the first time that the Conservatives would have chosen a slightly awkward, brave but competent female leader from a field of men. What Mrs May doesn't have is a Keith Joseph figure. Despite holding so many briefs her political worldview is far from publicly defined. But time is on her side and surprising people is becoming the Home Secretary's trademark.

> Last month Mark Fox and Theresa May interviewed Theresa May: "The Conservative Party’s always stood in every seat, and I think it’s important to us."


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