Deciphering Mrs May

The Home Secretary comes out swinging - but to what end?

In the aftermath of the Labour leadership contest, this author heard a bizarre story. During the course of the race, an activist had asked a party member who they were backing to succeed Ed Miliband. In response, the member said they were supporting Theresa May. While an isolated case, it perhaps says something about how little the public knows the Home Secretary that one of their number could have conflated her with Yvette Cooper, the woman who toiled as her shadow for over four years.

Both supporters and critics of May would likely attribute her relatively low profile to the way she has run her department over the past five years. The Home Secretary is famously obsessive about detail, and has been accused by some of her former Lib Dem colleagues of not delegating responsibility. Yet within Westminster she is respected for having clung onto her post without a major misstep, and for some time has been talked about as a potential successor to David Cameron.

Today, May had the opportunity to lay down a marker for that contest, to differentiate herself from the man who stole the show yesterday (George Osborne) and the man who was always going to hog the limelight today (Boris Johnson). Rather than roam widely across issues, she chose to focus solely on immigration, a topic that dominated the headlines over the summer but is reportedly raised by Tory MPs when May’s name comes up as a putative leadership contender.  

The benefits of such a strategy were clear enough. Launching straight into Europe’s refugee crisis gave the Home Secretary the chance to play the stateswoman, thundering weighty messages about the need to find solutions in Syria and deal ruthlessly with British members of ISIS. Focussing on the relationship between EU freedom of movement rules and migration tugged at the hearts of Tory activists in favour of Brexit. And a verbal grenade in the direction of “the university lobby” on student migration allowed May to play the doughty opponent of the liberal elites, always a useful target for Conservative politicians seeking an enemy within.

Yet at the same time, the limitations were all too clear. And it wasn’t just the howls of protest from both left-leaning and right-leaning commentators about her hardline position on immigration. As one journalist with a Tory-leaning newspaper observed, those in the hall loved May’s message, but it was not clear if they loved her too. The elixir any leadership contender must possess is an ability to be the vehicle for their selectorate’s hopes and dreams. May’s decision to speak about one issue on which she has already been heavily defined – and not necessarily in the most flattering light – did not give Tory MPs or members a canvass on which to paint their ideal image of a leader.

Then again, perhaps this speech was not about the leadership at all, but something much more fundamental. In terms of longevity May is already up there with her illustrious predecessor Rab Butler, and at times it felt as if she wanted to secure her place in the pantheon of history. That may explain why she was so keen to attribute the relentless rise in immigration to structural factors and to liken the Government’s strategy on refugees to the bold approach taken to the arrival of the Ugandan Asians in the 1970s by another Tory Home Secretary, the liberal-minded Robert Carr. It could be to a more elite club than George Osborne and Boris Johnson that Mrs May ultimately aspires to join. 

Photograph: Policy Exchange

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