Theresa May’s vision for Britain comes into focus

The Economist, 19.04.2017
  • The cautious, promise-keeping plodder turns out to be no such thing

Before her bolt-from-the-blue announcement that she was calling a general election, most Britons had Theresa May down as an honest plodder: a safe pair of hands who kept her promises and did her homework. She trod water in the Home Office for six years while David Cameron’s inner circle got on with the job of reforming the country. She became prime minister only because the Tory party was desperate for somebody who could unite pro- and anti-Brexit factions after Mr Cameron’s resignation following the referendum. Mrs May’s greatest qualification for the job was that she took a lukewarm position, as a reluctant Remainer, on the most important issue of her time—hardly Churchill on appeasement or Thatcher on the unions.

Yet Mrs May has scrambled her reputation as well as electrifying British politics. A safe pair of hands? Some pollsters had advised Tory high-command not to risk an election on the grounds 48% of the country wants to stay in the European Union and Tory voters (particularly in the south) might scatter to the winds. A promise-keeper? Mrs May had made a clear pledge not to hold a general election before her time was up. A second-division politician? Calling an election was the sort of high-risk, high-reward manoeuvre that could allow her to stamp her authority on the country and her name in the history books.

Mrs May was a more ambitious politician than the political class realised. The Tory modernisers who surrounded David Cameron had eyes only for each other: would George (Osborne) replace David or would Boris (Johnson) pip him to the post? Mrs May was too dull to be bothered with. But she always had thoughts above her station. As a sixth-former she announced that she wanted to be Britain’s first woman prime minister. She trailed the idea of running for party leader when Michael Howard stood down in 2005. She spent her time in the Home Office building a reputation as a competent administrator and waiting for the shine to come off Mr Cameron’s modernisation project.

Mrs May turned out to be ruthless as well as ambitious. On becoming prime minister she summoned Mr Osborne for a chat. He wanted to stay on as chancellor of the exchequer but told friends that he was willing to be foreign secretary. She sacked him with a flea in his ear about promising more than he delivered, and followed up by sacking almost all the rest of Mr Cameron’s cronies. She rules her cabinet with a rod of iron with the enthusiastic help of her longtime aides, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, and has happily applied that rod to two of the most senior members of the cabinet: the chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond, and the foreign secretary, Mr Johnson.

Mrs May is not an ideas woman—she didn’t have any interest in engaging with such Cameron-era clever clogs as Michael Gove and Mr Osborne. But she nevertheless has a sense of what sort of country she wants. Her Britain is the Britain of the provincial Tory heartlands: a Britain of solid values and rooted certainties, hard work and upward mobility, a Britain where people try to get ahead but also have time for the less fortunate.

Mr Cameron was never really at home with the Tory middle classes. In some ways he was too grand: the Old Etonian married into the aristocracy and has taken to shooting in his retirement. In other ways he was too metropolitan: he didn’t want to have to apologise for his party to the liberal elites of London or New York. For Mrs May, the middling folk are her people. She was brought up in the Cotswolds, the daughter of a Church of England vicar, and still takes her Anglicanism seriously. She shinned her way up the greasy pole from her local grammar school to Oxford and from minor jobs in local politics to the highest office in the land. At Oxford, the Cameroons went to grand colleges and joined the Bullingdon, a posh, boorish dining club. Both were mainly off-limits to women; Mrs May made do with a dowdier college and relaxed by watching “The Goodies”, a particularly dire comedy. The Cameroons became special advisers to ministers before being parachuted into safe seats. Mrs May didn’t get her seat, albeit the plum one of Maidenhead, until she was 40. Her purge of the Cameron gang was a vicious bit of class politics: a grammar-school girl who had been patronised by a bunch of public-school toffs plunging in the knife with skill and relish.


The emerging Mayism

Mrs May didn’t come to office like Thatcher with a well-worked out ideology, or like Mr Cameron with a long-cherished “project”. But her provincial prejudices are beginning to cohere into a political doctrine: an updated version of the one-nation Toryism which dominated the party before Thatcher pulverised it. Mrs May is much more willing to contemplate intervention in the market than her predecessors: she wants to make takeovers more difficult and has even talked about putting workers on boards. Mr Timothy, her guru, is an admirer of Joseph Chamberlain, a Victorian “people’s Tory” who led the campaign against free trade. Mrs May is also much more worried about social atomisation than has been the fashion in her party. Whereas Thatcher championed liberal markets and Mr Cameron championed liberal morals, Mrs May wants to rebuild communities that have been battered by social change. Her disdain for “citizens of nowhere” is not just a political ploy: she seriously thinks that Britain needs more provincial certainties as an antidote to rootless cosmopolitanism.

The winds are blowing strongly in Mrs May’s direction. Labour is in chaos. The Liberal Democrats are hampered by weak leadership. The Scottish National Party is losing momentum: Mrs May would relish the chance of heading off Scottish independence by picking up a few seats north of the border. But these are uncertain and volatile times: just look at the French election. And even if Mrs May enhances her majority in June, as looks likely, this apostle of one-nation Toryism will still be presiding over a deeply divided country.

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