It’s no coincidence that some time in the past few days or weeks, Philip May’s LinkedIn page was shut down. Being married to the British government’s home secretary is one thing, but it’s quite another to contemplate the inevitable close scrutiny of the world’s media as the husband of the country’s prime minister.
Theresa May, who succeeded David Cameron on Wednesday after he was ousted by his referendum failure to keep Britain in the European Union, values her privacy – an unusual trait in an era of high-profile, attention-seeking politicians.
But if little is known about the private life of Britain’s new leader, the British media has discovered in the past few days that there’s even less to be unearthed about the UK’s new “First Husband”, the man once described by his wife, in a rare personal interview, as “a real rock for me”.
Philip John May, 58, was born in the eastern English county of Norfolk in 1957. Like his wife, he wasn’t born into privilege. His father, John, was a sales representative for a shoe firm, and his mother, Joy, a French teacher. Theresa’s father was an Anglican vicar and, as the genealogy site Findmypast revealed this week, both her grandmothers were in domestic service.
At a young age, Philip and his family moved to Merseyside on England’s west coast, where he did well at a selective state grammar school near Liverpool.
Back then, a university education was still free in the United Kingdom, and May read history at Lincoln College, Oxford. It was there, in 1976, that he met Theresa Mary Brasier, one year older and two academic years above him, who was studying geography at St Hugh’s College.
They were introduced, as Theresa recalled on the BBC Radio programme Desert Island Discs in 2014, by Benazir Bhutto, the future prime minister of Pakistan, then a fellow student at Oxford.
The occasion, Theresa recalled, was “an Oxford University Conservative Association disco, of all things”. She was talking to Bhutto, when a man wandered over, “and she said: ‘Oh, do you know Philip May?’.” They danced, “and the rest is history, as they say”.
Pressed by the show’s host, Kirsty Young, for her first impressions, Theresa said only: “I quite liked him. We were jointly interested in politics and we were meeting at the Conservative Association, so we had some common interests to start off with.”
Common interests, but although at the time it seemed Philip was the one bound for a career in politics, not a common ambition. Instead, as Theresa’s constituency association chairman said this week, Philip would prove to be “a really nice bloke who is conscientious about his wife’s work – the perfect partner to a prime minister”.
In 1979, Philip was president for a term of the Oxford Union, a debating society known as a breeding ground for future leaders – Bhutto herself served as president in 1977; others have included such political luminaries as 19th-century prime minister William Gladstone and modern Conservatives Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, whose own prime ministerial ambitions were recently eclipsed by Theresa May’s.
After university, Philip and Theresa both embarked on careers in finance. He started as a stockbroker at De Zoete & Bevan in 1979, and has remained in the City, spending the past decade as a relationship manager with fund management company Capital Group.
After graduating in 1977, Theresa joined the Bank of England, before moving to banking support organisation the Association for Payment Clearing Services. But she had grander ambitions from the outset, telling friends at Oxford that she intended to become prime minister.
On September 6, 1980, the couple married at Theresa’s father’s church in Oxfordshire. Between 1986 and 1994, she cut her political teeth as a Conservative councillor for the London borough of Merton.
He, meanwhile, was establishing a reputation in the City as a quiet but effective operator – a reputation that would extend to his role as the husband of an MP after his wife was elected to represent the seat of Maidenhead in the 1997 general election.
In the City, a source told The Guardian this week, Philip was the antithesis of a ”stereotypical investment manager with a big ego”. Quiet and keeping himself to himself, he had “very good integrity and never trades off his wife’s name”.
Theresa has described herself as “not a showy politician”, and he’s the husband to match. A Conservative Party source told The Guardian: “Theresa May is the most unclubbable of politicians – and he is incredibly quiet. At party conferences, he is always three or four paces behind her and very happy not to be in the limelight.”
On Desert Island Discs, Theresa spoke only briefly about her private life, but did offer a tantalising glimpse of the “many happy evenings” she and her husband had spent socialising with friends in the village hall in Sonning-on-Thames, the picturesque, upmarket riverside village in Berkshire where their neighbours include George and Amal Clooney and Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page.
Shortly after the Mays married, while Theresa was in her mid-20s, both her parents died within a few months of each other. Her father, 64, was killed in a car crash; shortly afterwards her wheelchair-bound mother succumbed to multiple sclerosis.
An only child, Theresa had coped, she said, because “I had huge support in my husband … He was a real rock for me and he has been all the time we’ve been married”.
That support would continue through years of frustration as she doggedly pursued her ambition to become a member of parliament. She made three attempts in five years before she was successful, finally being elected in 1997.
At home, she told a news crew during the campaign, she and her husband had put everything other than the fight for the seat on hold as “ATE – After The Election”.
Footage from the count shows Philip standing by her side, beaming with pride as the result is read out. This most-private of public couples hug briefly, almost politely, before Theresa steps forward briskly to give her victory speech.
In an interview at the beginning of this month, Theresa spoke about their sadness at not being able to have children because of health issues. “We were both affected by it,” she told the Daily Mail. “You see friends who now have grown-up children, but you accept the hand that life deals you.”
Six days later, Andrea Leadsom, then Theresa’s only remaining rival for the post of leader of the Conservative Party, caused outrage by suggesting that, because she didn’t have children, she was somehow less qualified to run the country. It was a catastrophic misjudgement that sank Leadsom’s chances.
Philip has remained steadfast and all but invisible throughout his wife’s steady ascent. Her first high-profile political appointment came in 1999, two years after she was elected as an MP, when she was made shadow secretary of state for education and employment by then Conservative leader William Hague. In all, she has served under four party leaders, in roles with responsibilities for education, women, transport, environment, and work and pensions, and from 2002 to 2003, was chair of the Conservative party.
In May 2010, she finally entered government, when the newly victorious Cameron made her home secretary. A notoriously tough role, she held it until her promotion on Wednesday, by which time she had become the longest-serving incumbent in the office for 50 years.
Philip hasn’t put a foot wrong, as his wife battled as home secretary with challenging issues including immigration, cuts to the UK policing budget, the deportation of suspected terrorists and widespread rioting during the summer of 2011.
But the couple had a taste of the political havoc that could be wreaked by a less diligent spouse in November last year when a rumour began to fly around social media that Philip was a major shareholder in the security company G4S.
If true, it would have been a serious matter for Theresa, whose department was responsible for awarding contracts to the company. As G4S was quick to make clear, Philip had no interests in the company whatsoever.
In the past few days, inevitable comparisons have been made between Theresa, Britain’s second female prime minister, and the first, Margaret Thatcher, who served from 1979 to 1990. But as newspapers have searched for fragments of gossip about her partner of three decades, attempts to draw parallels between him with Thatcher’s occasionally gaffe-prone husband, Denis, have fallen flat.
Philip’s school motto was ”Ambition, respect, pride”. How he will cope now his wife has joined the elite club of world leaders remains to be seen, but it seems his ambition has always been to serve hers, with respect and pride. As she faces the daunting post-Brexit task of extracting her country from the European Union, Britain’s new leader can be confident that Philip will always have her back as First Husband.
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Source: art & life