Why Theresa May Be Set for a Spectacular Fall-out With the Telegraph

13/07/2016 17:07 | Updated 13 July 2016

When people say Theresa May has no small talk they are not exaggerating.

I first encountered her when I was deputy editor of the Sunday Telegraph; every year at the Conservative Party conference we would meet senior party figures and they were invariably relaxed, informal, gossipy affairs. Some were disarmingly indiscreet.

Not Theresa May. Whether it was coffee at the conference centre or dinner in a hotel restaurant she was business-like to the point of taciturn; unusually for a politician, she would listen, say very little, rarely be drawn and bat off all attempts at informality. Geoffrey Boycott, her childhood idol, could not have played with a straighter bat.

As a journalist, it was disconcerting. We were used to ambitious politicians trying to build relationships and alliances, however phoney, with an eye on the glittering prize. Few have dared to take the Theresa May approach and make no attempt to woo journalists, just as she has made no attempt to curry favour with backbenchers in the House of Common tearooms or cosy up to Cabinet colleagues.

So, what sort of relationship will Britain's new Prime Minister have with the press? She has enjoyed the giddiest of honeymoon periods, depicted as 'a serious woman for serious times'. Her rapid elevation to No 10 Downing Street was received with near-universal acclaim by the nation's leader writers.

The trump card in Theresa May's leadership campaign was the support of the Daily Mail, which declared for her while David Cameron's body was still warm in his political grave. On the face of it, that was a little surprising; the Mail has always been a cheerleader for Brexit and May was the only Remain supporter in the campaign. But the Mail's editor Paul Dacre, who hates the limelight, had doubtless been irritated by a leaked email from Sarah Vine, the wife of Michael Gove - and Daily Mail columnist - in which he was name checked as a prospective supporter of a Boris Johnson/Michael Gove leadership ticket.

But that, in itself, would not have been enough to sway Dacre. More likely, he admires May's character: hard-working, discreet, low-profile, unshowy but driven by conviction. He had a similar admiration for Gordon Brown - like May, offspring of a clergyman - and developed a surprisingly close relationship with him, given their political differences.


The Times and Financial Times, which both supported Remain, will be relieved that the Brexit leadership candidates imploded, one after another, through a mixture of insouciance, political suicide bombing and naivety. They should be broadly supportive of May and inclined to give her a fair wind.

The Sun and Daily Express, both firmly in the Brexit campaign, will want to hold her feet to the fire as she begins the negotiations to pull the UK out of the EU. The Express, with its close Ukip affiliations, will be quick to seize on any sign of back-sliding and may prove tricky, but its influence has long been on the wane. The Sun's editor, Tony Gallagher, is a wily operator with a sure touch and will be more pragmatic; he's never afraid to ruffle feathers in Downing Street but he's pragmatic too and will recognise the value of being supportive in difficult times.

May's biggest problem may come from the Daily Telegraph, the Conservative Party's house journal. It won't be her support for Remain that alarms the Telegraph; though the paper backed Brexit, it will see May as the acceptable face of the Remain campaign.

Rather it will be her pledge to take on big business, curbing executive pay and installing employees on company boards. At the outset of her leadership campaign - when it still looked like there would be a contest - she signalled that overhauling corporate rules would be a key priority. Ed Miliband would have found himself nodding in agreement with her attack on the greed of big business.

If May is serious about following through on this, she will have a big problem with the Telegraph. Aidan Barclay, chairman of Telegraph Media Group, makes no secret of the fact that his papers must support Big Business unconditionally. Talk of curbing pay or giving more power to employees has him spluttering with rage. Alistair Heath, the Telegraph's deputy editor and outspoken columnist, will rail against these reforms from a great height. It could get ugly.

What we don't yet know is how the new Prime Minister will respond to trenchant media criticism of this sort. My hunch is she has a thick skin and will not easily bow to pressure. I expect her to be straightforward - one might say old-fashioned - in her dealings with the media. She may have a reputation for a micro-management but I doubt she'll obsess over every headline in the way Gordon Brown did.

If so, that augurs well for her Premiership. Brown's attack dogs were not a pretty sight when unleashed; let's hope she has the self-confidence to keep her own spinners in check.