Six months ago, Theresa May was Britain’s disliked and distrusted prime minister. Now the Conservative candidate for Maidenhead is trying to heal the wounds with her party and country by going back to her first political passion: doorstep campaigning.
After her ignominious exit from Downing Street in July, Mrs May returned to being a backbench MP. And, going against the trend of many of her predecessors who left parliament to pursue lucrative careers in the private sector, she appears to have no intention of quitting politics.
Although activists lost faith in Mrs May as prime minister — she almost became the first Tory leader to face a no-confidence vote — they never lost respect. “If there was a stick of rock that ran through Theresa, it would say ‘Conservative’. She would never abandon us and we would never abandon her,” said one veteran campaigner.
Since stuffing envelopes from the age of 13, Mrs May’s identity for 50 years has been as a Tory activist — from a councillor, MP and minister to finally prime minister. She has duly returned to the campaign trail, helping candidates, with a focus on women and competitive seats.
As well as campaigning in her own safe constituency, she has made regular “Theresa trips” to support candidates such as Alok Sharma in Reading West, Andrew Bowie in West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine and Rebecca Pow in Taunton Deane.
Siobhan Baillie, standing for the Tories in Stroud, welcomed Mrs May to her patch and said the former prime minister enjoyed knocking on doors, handing out leaflets and chatting to residents.
“She has always been very supportive of female candidates and all the local residents were really pleased to see her,” Ms Baillie said. “Some folks were telling her how well she looked and asking how she was enjoying retirement. Theresa enjoyed telling them she certainly hasn’t left politics.”
Alex Chalk, the incumbent Conservative candidate in the highly marginal seat of Cheltenham, said the former prime minister was “really well received” during her recent visit. “There was such a warm, positive and respectful response from local people, with schoolchildren, parents and local residents queueing up for selfies.”
The decision to continue campaigning speaks to what motivates Mrs May. Paul Harrison, who served as her press secretary from 2017 to 2019, said one of the misconceptions is that she is “actually very much a people person”.
“She is genuinely interested in people’s lives and the impact government has on them. Her time on the doorstep is how she captures it.” Mr Harrison recalled that whatever her duties as prime minister, Mrs May insisted on finding time to campaign.
“When we’d finished an overseas trip and were flying back, usually into some sort of crisis, Theresa would insist on building in some time to knock on doors — a Sunday canvassing session or a Friday surgery in her constituency. One of the nice and refreshing things about her is that as a person, she is quite bereft of ego.”
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But some Conservatives have questioned whether her loyalty to the party has clouded her judgment. By advocating Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, Mrs May has ended up supporting an agreement that includes arrangements for Northern Ireland she once claimed “no prime minister could ever accept”.
“It’s bizarre: she rejected the Brexit deal that Boris accepted and now she’s out campaigning for it. But for Theresa, it’s all about loyalty to the party,” said one senior Conservative.
She is also campaigning against old friends. Mrs May was pictured gleefully handing out leaflets supporting Joy Morrissey, the Tory challenging independent Dominic Grieve in Beaconsfield, who went to university with Mrs May and is similarly opposed to a no-deal exit from the EU.
The last former prime minister who devoted themselves to backbench politics after leaving Number 10 was Ted Heath, who spent close to three decades as a Conservative MP with no frontline role after he lost the 1974 general election and the Tory leadership a year later.
David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair all opted to quit the House of Commons soon after leaving Downing Street.
Those who worked with Mrs May expect her to continue in politics for the foreseeable future. “Public service is in her DNA. And frankly she is showing a loyalty to the party that a lot of colleagues didn’t give her when she was prime minister. Unlike some, Theresa realises that the team is more important than the individual,” said one former government official.