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Welcome to the age of May

The PM has outfoxed her colleagues and now looks set for a long premiership

1 October 2016

9:00 AM

1 October 2016

9:00 AM

Theresa May isn’t much given to shows of emotion. When Andrea Leadsom called her to concede in the Tory leadership race, May was preparing for the first event of her nationwide campaign. She went ahead and delivered her speech, giving nothing away.

But even May might be tempted to do a victory jig upon entering the leader’s suite at the Conservative party conference. Only a year ago, her leadership chances were being written off. Her ambition was a source of much amusement to Cameroons and her cabinet colleagues (including some now holding very senior jobs in her government). They thought her speech warning that ‘it’s impossible to build a cohesive society’ when immigration is too high was at odds with the one-nation, optimistic theme of that conference. Cameron’s allies joked that she hadn’t ‘got the memo’. Ministers pointed out that Boris Johnson — who spoke after her — had gone down far better in the hall. At a reception for donors, Cameron praised Boris’s speech while pointedly ignoring hers.

Yet a year on, May is Prime Minister and Cameron is not even an MP. Her stern speech has been vindicated. As one of those cabinet ministers who had mocked her for it admitted a few months later, events in Germany rather proved her point.

But more importantly, she got the politics of the EU referendum precisely right. She did what Cameron’s No. 10 had always expected Boris to do: backed staying in but without enthusiasm, while positioning herself as a critic of the campaign. One member of her leadership team admitted — after she had won — that it had long been known that her best position was as a reluctant Remainer. She knew a narrow Leave vote would wipe out those who had campaigned enthusiastically for In or Out. Not bad for someone who doesn’t treat politics as a game. (The sense of having been outplayed explains much of the Cameroon anger towards Mrs May.)

Isabel Hardman, Fraser Nelson, James Forsyth and Matthew Parris discuss the age of May

Theresa May is not only Prime Minister, she stands entirely unchallenged. Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership victory, even more resounding than his first, shows that Labour is now a socialist party and one that isn’t prepared to compromise with the electorate. If Corbyn is still Labour leader in 2020 it almost guarantees a Tory victory at the general election. Add to this that Tory MPs know the party can’t change prime minister twice in a parliament without consulting the voters, and May looks set for at least six years in Downing Street.

Most Prime Ministers need to win a landslide to enjoy such job security, but May barely fought a leadership election. So what will she do with her power? This is the question that intrigues everyone from her cabinet colleagues to civil servants. She has been on the front bench for 17 years, but her colleagues are still unsure of her political principles.

No one would describe May as a libertarian and her wariness of foreign take-overs and her desire to put workers on boards show she isn’t a classic free-market liberal either. Since becoming Prime Minister, she has hymned the virtues of free trade. But she has also emphasised that governments must do more for those ‘feeling left behind’ by globalisation. We won’t find out how May plans to strike a balance between these two objectives until Britain has left the EU. Will she go hell for leather for new trade agreements, or try to protect industries from the pace of global change?

May is a moderniser, but she never flirted with the trendiest Notting Hill elements of the Cameron project. One of those who has worked with her for years says that she feels that if ‘professional women feel most at home with the Tory party, then it is in the right place’.

As Charles Moore explains in his biography of Margaret Thatcher, Mrs T always felt that there was no one to catch her if she fell, because she wasn’t part of that male–dominated Tory club where political bonds are reinforced by old school friendships and family ties. May, who entered the Commons only five years after Thatcher left, is conscious of this too. When she arrived in parliament there were only 13 female Tory MPs. She was promoted to the front bench within two years and without any gang behind her. Even as Prime Minister, she has a surprisingly small group of genuine, personal parliamentary loyalists.

Throughout her time in politics, May has known that if she made a mistake there wouldn’t be anyone to make excuses for her. As Home Secretary she did not benefit from the level of protection that David Cameron afforded George Osborne as Chancellor when his budgets ran into trouble. This is why May’s team instinctively fight like terriers for her whenever they perceive that she is under threat. It has also contributed to her desire not to embark on any initiative until she has thoroughly stress–tested it; and it is why she is always so determined to be across the detail on an issue, no matter how small. (It is her reputation for caution that causes Westminster to wonder why she has picked a fight on grammar schools when the arithmetic in the Lords is so against her.)

It is revealing that the junior ministers she did not get on with at the Home Office — Nick Herbert and Jeremy Browne — were both intellectually restless types keen on ‘blue-sky’ thinking. In contrast, those she has promoted to cabinet — James Brokenshire and Karen Bradley — are safe pairs of hands: competent implementers of policy.

May embodies hard, practical virtues. This explains her commitment to meritocracy. She has no patrician unease about a society where brains and hard work determine where you end up in life; hence her support for grammar schools, in spite of Cameron. Her dislike of flashiness means that she has no desire to become the darling of the Davos circuit. Hers is also the least London-centric leadership team of recent years. May herself grew up in Oxfordshire and her chiefs of staff are a Scot and a Brummie. Previously, party modernisers concentrated their attention on London, treating the capital as the Tory party’s canary in the coal mine — on the grounds that wherever the capital was, politically, in the present, the country would end up in a generation. But May’s team does not share that view. They are far more interested in reviving the party in other parts of the nation.

May is making two further policy shifts. First, is her desire to focus on the ‘just managing’ classes. She wants to end what she calls the skewing of government policy towards the poorest. The second is a move away from the liberal, open economic model that has dominated in Britain since Thatcher. May’s desire for an industrial strategy is telling in this respect. But it is already clear from the vigorous debates that have taken place in cabinet that the Chancellor, his Treasury and the more free-market-minded Tory ministers would fiercely contest any move away from the established British model.

The other big question is what does May think Brexit actually means? Her decision to make a speech on the subject on the opening day of Tory conference shows that the Prime Minister knows she ultimately owns it. Her belief that the UK should control its own immigration policy means that, barring an unlikely climb-down from the other 27 states, Britain is heading out of both the customs union and the single market. Indeed, with influential Labour MPs such as Rachel Reeves, Chuka Umunna and Stephen Kinnock declaring that control over free movement should, if necessary, be put ahead of the single market, the political currents are moving in favour of full Brexit.

But for May, there are some menacing clouds on the horizon. One challenge will be to make sure Brexit does not consume all her political capital. Short of that unlikely climb-down from the rest of the EU, May’s settlement is going to end up disappointing some in her own party. She will be doing well not to become the fourth Tory prime minister in a row to be finished off by Europe. (One wonders what will do for Conservative prime ministers once Britain has left the EU.)

Then there is the independence of the cabinet. May is a Remainer implementing Brexit — and that renders her Brexit ministers, barring some personal scandal, unsackable. This means that however much No. 10 slaps them down, it cannot shut them up. Already, all three have provided greater definition of what Brexit means than the Prime Minister has.

But the Brexiteers are not the only cabinet ministers who are unsackable: so is the Chancellor. If Philip Hammond were to walk away saying he couldn’t keep the economy going in these circumstances, it would be devastating for the government. Certainly Hammond isn’t holding back in cabinet, where his dry economics conflict with No. 10’s more interventionist streak. One of his recent contributions was described to me as ‘fearless’. ‘He’s really let his hair down since becoming Chancellor,’ observes one cabinet colleague.

At the moment, none of these cabinet ministers is actively causing trouble for No. 10. But their independence is a reminder of the limits to May’s authority — limits that will remain in place until she has won her own mandate.

Then there are the backbenchers. May has carefully sought to placate those who threatened to make life so difficult for Cameron. The old right are the biggest enthusiasts for her grammar school policy. While some of those most adept at causing trouble in the Commons are now inside the tent (arch Leavers such as Stewart Jackson and Tom Pursglove are PPS’s and serial rebel Andrew Percy is a junior minister), May has been less careful with the Cameroons, whom she has largely dismissed. This group is smaller in parliamentary terms than the old right, and its members aren’t as keen on guerrilla warfare. But their reaction to the grammar schools announcement shows that they don’t intend to go gentle into that good night.

At conference, May will be showered with affection by a party that feels she is one of their own. She joined the Tories as a teenager and went out door-knocking most weekends. She is in charge — and will be for the foreseeable future. But once her conference ovation has ended, the hard work starts.

The last year has shown that May is an astute, and underestimated, political practitioner. She will need all these skills if she is to negotiate a successful Brexit deal while keeping her industrial policy and social reform agendas on track. And as she knows, even now, there will be no one there to catch her if she falls.


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