Theresa May has been a major political player in the UK for nearly two decades, but she’s still something of an enigma; a politician who is not yet fully known or understood. What is her real personality, what drives her politics, and what does she want to achieve during her time at 10 Downing? As she faces ever greater public scrutiny her character and political priorities will be of much wider interest.
May’s critics would be quick to paint her as a right wing authoritarian, keen on drastically reducing immigration and taking a hard stance on law and order issues. But in reality, her record is far more nuanced, with decidedly liberal moments including scrapping ID cards, reducing detention without charge to 14 days, reforming stop and search, and pushing through the Modern Slavery Act. She was also able to demonstrate her tough exterior and no-nonsense approach, taking on perceived vested interests with her call for the Police Federation to reform itself.
As a political operator, she doesn’t readily fall into the narrow boxes that her critics would like her to. Yes, she takes a tough approach to immigration, but at the same time she has demonstrated her commitment to tackling modern slavery and labour market exploitation. It is the nuances in her approach that make her an interesting and compelling politician. During the past six years of government, May has seldom strayed from her portfolio, and has demonstrated little of her views and positions on other policy areas. She was a ‘Reluctant Remainer’ during the referendum campaign, but unlike other senior government ministers she has not spoken widely on issues outside her own portfolio.
Impact on the Conservative Party
The Conservative party enters a new dawn under Theresa May. The UK’s new Prime Minister will preside over one of the most challenging periods in British political history – needing not only to act as a unifying force across a country fragmenting under the weight of its own political, demographic and economic pressures, but also to heal the deep wounds within the ranks of her own party. Outwardly a supporter for the ‘Remain campaign’, but inwardly a Eurosceptic, this combination could prove pivotal in her ability to unify the divisions of the party. A reconciliation that David Cameron was ultimately unable to achieve. Over the years, Theresa May has demonstrated a political sense that stands her in good stead for the challenges ahead. Always a loyal minister, she has ably ploughed her own furrow at the Home Office, quietly and doggedly demonstrating her skills as a political operator without the fanfare and showmanship displayed by others in the Cabinet. When former colleagues in the Home Office have been asked to describe Theresa May, common adjectives emerge: ‘steadfast’, ‘hard working’ and ‘trustworthy.’ She believes in knowing her brief, and places emphasis on merit, ability and detail.
It’s likely then that she will be the architect of a more meritocratic government than we have seen for some time – making appointments on ability, eschewing the idea the government, and the wider party, should be dominated by vested interests and personal loyalties. In terms of her personal style Theresa May is unlikely to ‘wow’ at the dispatch box or have the wit or turn of phrase of David Cameron. She will, however, bring other qualities to the role that are arguably more valuable to the government. It is these qualities, she will be hoping, that will progress the Conservatives to a point where they can win the convincing electoral majority that eluded Cameron. In terms of her own ideologies and how these will sit with colleagues, it has been said that her relationships have in the past been influenced less by what she believes and more by how she behaves; and has been known to make enemies because of this.
Driven by a strong sense of morality, however Theresa May has already demonstrated her commitment to fairness and ‘doing the right thing’ in her approach to the economy. Her rhetoric on using the tax system to bear down on wealth inequality and tackle excessive boardroom pay is a clear departure from David Cameron and George Osborne’s record. She has already indicated she will continue in the vein of David Cameron’s socially progressive agenda – working for a one nation government that aims to tackle the injustice of disadvantage to improve life chances.
Already the new Prime Minister has spoken deliberately to all corners of Britain. Calling the union a “precious, precious bond,” she has explicitly highlighted her unionist values and made a clear and unequivocal commitment to keep the UK together. A bold move that suggests Nicola Sturgeon may have finally met her match. David Cameron faced criticism during his time as party leader from the party’s grassroots for at best ignoring them, and at worst treating them with what they viewed as contempt. Under David Cameron the party’s membership shrunk by nearly a half. One of his closest allies is alleged to have referred to party members as ‘swivel eyed loons’ whilst at the same time seeking to introduce radical reforms to the party’s structure perceived to weaken the influence of local associations. While the unexpected 2015 General Election victory and the promise of a referendum restored some morale within the party, Theresa May faces a significant challenge to rebuild relations with the party’s base. Her reputation as somebody who is willing to travel around the local party circuit attending fundraising dinners and campaigning sessions is likely to make this easier, as will the perception that she is perhaps more ‘in tune’ with the views of members than David Cameron was.
May has also demonstrated her willingness to challenge party members though. Her 2002 party conference speech in which she conceded that some consider the Conservatives to be the ‘nasty party’ is just one example. Within the parliamentary party, May is likely to command loyalty for the foreseeable future. The bold way in which she conducted her reshuffle leaves potential critics lurking on the back benches. While the most senior are likely to be loyal for now – Osborne and Gove in particular – there will be voices amongst the more socially liberal backbenchers, notably Nick Boles, Ed Vaizey and Anna Soubry, who will be prepared to challenge her and publicly scrutinise her policy progress. Those who campaigned to leave the EU but who missed out on a ministerial role, such as Dominic Raab, will be monitoring progress on Brexit with interest. While these are not likely to be immediate challenges, they do reflect the tightrope she will have to walk. The new and relatively inexperienced Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson, will have his hands full keeping these big personalities in check. The way the leadership contest played out suggested that May received backing from MPs who believed her to be the most pragmatic and electorally successful option. Unlike other candidates, she perhaps didn’t receive significant support based on her ideology or political philosophy. The new Prime Minister will need to foster a new generation of ‘May-ites’, in the same sense that George Osborne was able to build up a strong support base. As a new Prime Minister with significant power and patronage at her disposal this could be relatively straightforward. May has ruled out calling a snap general election, saying there will be no election until 2020. However, despite claims she still has a mandate for a Conservative government from the manifesto that won the last election; her premiership will see a divergence from the Cameron/Osborne era. Commentators have highlighted her strong criticism of Gordon Brown’s decision in 2007 not to hold a general election, which may incentivise her not to repeat his mistake. And if she were to call an election, with the Labour Party in such disarray – what would she have to lose? Time will tell whether Theresa May’s words on tackling an unequal Britain can truly affect change. Her experience demonstrates she has the qualities to steady the country during a turbulent time and is a trustworthy and determined politician.
Post Brexit Vision
‘Reluctant remainer’ Theresa May kept a low profile during the referendum campaign, subsequently leading more hard line Brexiteers to question her commitment to the voters’ decision to leave. Despite this, May has been adamant that “Brexit means Brexit” and has confirmed that there will be “no attempts to remain inside the EU” or “attempts to re-join it by the back door”. She has also dismissed talk of a second referendum. In line with her traditionally careful approach to decision-making, May has said she will not trigger Article 50 until at least 2017, emphasising the need to allow sufficient time to get “the right deal” for the UK. Having held responsibility for immigration as Home Secretary since 2010, we can expect this to remain a key focus for the Prime Minister. She is only too aware of the enormous political weight carried by immigration during the referendum campaign, particularly amongst grassroots Leave voters. Unlike her leadership rivals, she refused to guarantee the rights of EU citizens to remain in the UK after Brexit. Indeed, David Davis MP, May’s chief Brexit negotiator, has said that she made an explicit pledge to prioritise immigration control in Brexit negotiations, even if this results in economic concessions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned that Britain will not be allowed to cherry pick EU laws, which will undoubtedly necessitate at least some compromise.
Other sources have said security, including the ability to deport foreign criminals and terrorists, will be a key component of May’s post-Brexit vision. As Home Secretary, her main argument in favour of the EU was its role in protecting European peace and security. She is therefore likely to seek to maintain access to mechanisms such as the European Arrest Warrant and the European Criminal Records Information System. While she has always been a vocal critic of the European Convention on Human Rights, she has quietly abandoned her ambition for the UK to withdraw, on the grounds this would be divisive and would command no parliamentary majority were it put to a vote. In contrast to the inevitable comparisons with Margaret Thatcher, this paints a picture of May as a pragmatist rather than an ideologue. And what do other European leaders make of her? European Council President Donald Tusk has, uncharacteristically, kept his cards close to his chest in his views on May, saying only that he looks forward to a “fruitful working relationship” with her. Similarly, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has spoken of the need to “work closely” with May on what he euphemistically calls “the new situation which the United Kingdom and the European Union will have to address soon”. Angela Merkel spoke with May on the evening of her appointment as Prime Minister and has sought a calm and measured approach to Brexit, in contrast to murmurs of revenge from her French and Eastern European colleagues. They are all, however, united in their agreement that Britain must invoke Article 50 prior to starting negotiations, which collides with May’s pledge to begin the exit process once “the right deal” has been secured for Britain.
May will also have her work cut out dealing with the SNP Government in Edinburgh to prevent the breakup of the United Kingdom. David Cameron’s last Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons was met with a stony silence from SNP MPs, who refused to applaud him on the grounds that his government had taken Scotland out of the EU against the wishes of the Scottish people. May has a strong ally in Scottish Conservative Leader Ruth Davidson, who will help fight her pro-union corner, but pressure for a second independence referendum is likely to continue. Interestingly, May has another valuable ally in Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, as tensions arising from the Catalan and Basque separatist movements have led Rajoy to pledge that any attempt by an independent Scotland to join the EU would be vetoed by Spain. It’s been said that Brexit is the biggest challenge faced by any Prime Minister since the Second World War. It will be a painful and gruelling process – even for a woman as tough as Theresa May!
Contributed by Amna Malik. Author is the President, Center of Pakistan and International Relations (COPAIR) and Editor-in-Chief of ‘Melange’