I once met Theresa May at a seminar organised by the think tank Politeia on a subject that I cannot now remember. There were a dozen or so of us sitting round the table, and I was completely out of my depth, but at one point I made a ham-fisted intervention which was listened to politely by the other participants, and earned from Theresa May, facing me across the table, a kindly smile.
When she was 20 points ahead in the polls a couple of months ago, it seemed inevitable that she would be returned in the general election with a substantial majority. However, I had an intimation that Labour might do better than expected when, while I voted Conservative, four out of the nine members of my immediate family voted Labour. One did so only because he had met his Conservative candidate and found him rude, obnoxious and a hard Brexiteer. The others three voted Labour, not despite Corbyn but because of him. They thought he was honest, principled and on the side of the poor.
These three convinced Corbynistas were unquestionably sincere in their admiration for the Labour Party’s programme for government, but duplicitous in suggesting that it was only on the basis of that programme that they had made their choice. They might have voted Lib Dem or for the Greens but were all quite incapable of voting Conservative, whatever was promised in their manifesto. The very word “Tory” made them shudder. Hating the Tories was integral to their self-image. And this was not just because they were young. My septuagenarian relatives in Islington would rather be thrown into a fiery furnace than vote Conservative. So too a sexagenarian Catholic friend whom I met at the polling booth: he had voted for the Labour candidate, despite his views on abortion, faith schools and gay marriage, because, I suspect, of a life-long Manichean view that good was to be found on the left and evil on the right.
In my youth – indeed, well into middle age – I felt the same. I grew up in the constituency of Thirsk and Malton in North Yorkshire, a Tory heartland. My parents did not vote – my father, because he was an anarchist; my mother because she was apolitical. At 18, I fell in love with the daughter of Conservative neighbours and drove my beloved around the countryside putting up posters saying “Vote for Turton”. At night I followed the same route with my sister tearing them down again.
At Cambridge, I fell under the influence of radical Dominicans and subscribed to the liberationist journal Slant. I flirted with communism, and would defend both the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising and Mao’s Cultural Revolution. “Remember your mercy, Lord … Do not remember the sins of my youth.”
After graduating, I dithered between left and centre. I was treasurer of the City of London and Westminster Young Liberals, and later a Labour activist back in Thirsk and Malton, bringing the minister of agriculture to a meeting in Helmsley to talk on the issue of tied cottages. Then, back in London, I canvassed for the Liberals in the 1979 election, but when the moment came to put my cross on the ballot paper I voted Conservative.
What had brought about this hitherto unthinkable volte face? Margaret Thatcher. Few will now remember, and the young unable to imagine, how under Edward Heath and Harold Wilson Britain veered towards a corporatist state. Self-employment was discouraged, even for writers: the august Society of Authors felt it had to register as a trade union. Thatcher reversed the trend, broke the power of the unions, ended restrictive practices and established the conditions for our present prosperity.
Theresa May was touted as a new Thatcher, which was a mistake because she came across as cold, brusque and gauche, and was certainly not the reason that she had my vote. I felt that, as an open, church-going Christian, she deserved the support of the dwindling number of fellow Christians, particularly Catholics, because as soon as she became Prime Minister she had promised to remove the requirement that half the pupils of new Catholic free schools must be non-Catholics.
Moreover, none of the leaders of the other parties seemed to me credible as Prime Minister; and the idea of Diane Abbott supervising our security services as Home Secretary seemed grotesque. I agreed with Corbyn on foreign policy, but the Conservative proposals for state intervention to help those who had not shared in our present prosperity seemed to conform to Catholic social teaching. I therefore came to a judgment that she should continue to govern the country based, I like to think, on a rational calculation, but perhaps influenced by my memory from all those years ago of that kindly smile.
Piers Paul Read is a novelist, historian and biographer