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EDITIONS
Monday, 29 April, 2002, 09:14 GMT 10:14 UK
Changing the Tory tune
Theresa May
Theresa May: The Tories need to change

She is the woman who some say had a golden chance to end Stephen Byers' ministerial career and score a massive coup for the Conservatives.


The most dazzling performance in the House would not have got rid of him that day

Theresa May
But according to Theresa May's critics, when Mr Byers was on the rack over his handling of the Railtrack affair, she blew it.

Naturally enough, the Tory transport spokeswoman doesn't agree with those who say her performance in the House of Commons that day was less than polished.

"I think the reality was that as I walked into the chamber and saw Gordon Brown and David Blunkett sitting alongside him, it was absolutely clear that Byers was there to stay," she says.

Stephen Byers
Byers "will be moved in reshuffle"
"At that point in time he was not going to go - the most dazzling performance in the House would not have got rid of him that day."

If the episode damaged Mrs May, she shows no outward signs of regret. And she remains convinced that her opposite number's days are numbered in the transport department.

"The general opinion seems to be that at the reshuffle he will go, that he will be moved.

"Everything he touches just seems to crumble, so I would have thought in the interests of the travelling public he should be going."

Clergy children

Theresa May is as smart and as well spoken as you'd expect a Tory home counties MP to be.

She has been an MP for five years, but if she is relatively new to the House of Commons, the 45-year-old is no newcomer to politics.

After becoming a councillor in London in 1986, she stood in north-west Durham in the 1992 General Election and Barking in a by-election in 1994.

"It's almost the done thing in the party that you try at least one seat that is a no-hoper," she says.

She was elected in Maidenhead in 1997.

Mrs May says there was "no kind of sudden conversion" which persuaded her to go into politics.

But she adds: "My father was a clergyman - there are quite a few clergy children in the House of Commons - and that sort of public service ethos and also dealing with people's problems, are sort of similar to the political field."

'Need to change'

She finds herself on the Conservative frontbench at a fascinating time for the party as Iain Duncan Smith embarks on attempts to shift its focus.


The Conservative Party has always been a party that has cared for vulnerable people in society

Theresa May
Mrs May backed Michael Portillo in last year's Tory leadership election, and when he was eliminated, she didn't declare her voting intentions.

She says Mr Duncan Smith is pursuing the right agenda "because as a party we do need to change and I hope people are already starting to see those changes coming through".

So is she surprised that Mr Duncan Smith's leadership has not led to the party shifting to the right as many suspected it would? She doesn't have a stock answer for the question.

"I think I was very... very pleasantly... erm... aware that... how can I put it?... I am... I am grateful for the fact that... and in a sense, people say it was surprising but I don't think it was if you look at what he said during his leadership campaign."

Party tradition

She says Mr Duncan Smith talked about the need for change during the election "but because of the background he had, the positions he had taken in the past in the party, it was almost as if people didn't hear that".

Iain Duncan Smith
Iain Duncan Smith: "Pursuing right agenda"
"If you look at the campaign that he fought and some of the issues he raised, actually what he is doing is not as surprising as some commentators are saying."

Arguably Mr Duncan Smith's best speech since he was elected as party leader, in March at the Tory spring conference in Harrogate, focused on the need to address the problems of the most vulnerable people in society.

Mrs May rejects the suggestion that it marked a shift in Tory values, saying such sentiments are "just part of the party's tradition".

"The Conservative Party has always been a party that has cared for vulnerable people in society.

"If you look at the grassroots of the party, many people involved in the Conservative Party are also involved actively in voluntary organisations, in charities, in working with people in deprived areas."

'One nation party'

She admits that "it is possible that there are those who are on the extreme right of the party who will be dissatisfied" about direction of Mr Duncan Smith's leadership.


I hope that people will see that we are changing. I think people do.

Theresa May
"I think what has happened so far shows that those who are of extreme tendencies are not the future of the party, are not part of a party that is open and which is a one nation party," she says.

One task facing the party is to attract candidates from a more diverse background, including more women, she says.

The party is examining how potential candidates can be "matched" closer to constituencies, while the selection procedure needs to be "sharpened up" with selection committees given training on choosing candidates.

She accepts the Tories have had an image problem in the past.

"It is always going to be difficult to change your image as party," she says. "That's one of the hardest things.

"Despite everything that's been done in the past it's certainly the case that for many people the perception was a rather harsher approach than in fact often policies showed.

"I hope that people will see that we are changing. I think people do."

'Political decision'

Mrs May is currently in the midst of her party's review of transport policy, which will involve going out to the rest of Europe to see what the UK can learn from other countries.

Railways
Stephen Byers has "jeopardised" investment in railways, says Mrs May
Her brief also includes local government and the regions, but transport and particularly the Railtrack affair has dominated the agenda recently.

The main problem, she says, is that Stephen Byers has jeopardised future investment in the railways because of his "political decision" over Railtrack.

But she implicitly accepts the last Conservative government has to recognise its share of the blame for the UK's transport problems.

"All parties have to accept that because transport hasn't been at the top of the agenda, there have been issues about investment in infrastructure in the past - which is why it is so important to get investment for the future right."

See also:

25 Mar 02 | UK Politics
25 Mar 02 | UK Politics
24 Mar 02 | UK Politics
17 Feb 00 | UK Education
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