Meet Theresa May, Britain's Blandly Authoritarian New Prime Minister
Immigration, free speech, human rights: there's something unimaginatively old school in our new leader's authoritarian streak.
What even a brief reading of Theresa May's biography renders apparent is that she is boring. Professionally boring. Record-breakingly, thunderously, Corbyn-collecting-manhole-covers dull.
This was a woman who studied geography at university. Who was married by 24 and still is, the daughter of a vicar, who stuffed envelopes for the Conservative Association aged 12, studied hard, read vigorously, never quibbled with the teachings of the C of E nor seems to have had any kind of rebellious patch or streak at her very average grammar school.
Her Desert Island Discs included Abba's "Dancing Queen" (a hit when she was at Oxford), and a bit of Mozart (controversial stuff), dreary flag-wavers Purcell and Elgar, and Frankie Valli's "Walk Like A Man" (we get it, we get it). Her book was Pride and Prejudice (Sense and Sensibility a bit too edgy?) Only her luxury item seemed to strike at some deeper passion: a lifetime subscription to Vogue - and yes, squint a bit through the asymmetric tunics, erase the leopard print shoes she was again wearing at today's campaign launch, and something of an Anna Wintour ice queen starts to emerge in Theresa's silhouette. She's a power player, Johnny Big Balls, the last adult in the room at a moment when British democracy is whining to find just one adult who can steer a ship full of overgrown babies away from the rocks.
She may just be that. But it's been hard to tell, so close has she played her cards. May is known in Westminster as not being a joiner. Unlike Osborne or Bojo, there has never been a Theresa "faction" within the Conservative Party. She doesn't hang around in Commons bars, she doesn't gossip, and therefore she's not held to be a team player. At Cabinet, she's rumoured to speak very little. And, as Ken Clarke was caught saying off-mic, she has a reputation as a "bloody difficult woman" – a details hawk, a micro-manager.
In the years since she famously lambasted her Conservative colleagues for failing to take account of the "Nasty Party" tag, she has revealed very little of her views – what you might call "politics".
Certainly, the speech she gave on Monday morning – in the hours before she knew she would be PM – felt like someone had suddenly turned on a long-dormant tap of idea into a bone-dry desert of micro-management. Her pitch was One Nation Tory of the most sweeping kind. Reaching out, social justice, discrimination, economic inequality – far from coming off as a Thatcherite matriarch, she out-Cameroned Cameron on being small-l liberal small-c conservative. Far more Ottolenghi than Delia, in the language of cookery books that she collects.
Was it anything more than a strategic pivot? Another piece of pure pragmatism from a born pragmatist? An attempt to park her tanks squarely on the lawn on of a Labour Party whose own auto-cannibalism will long outlast these two weeks of Tory knife-play?
After all, May has been one of the most capricious Home Secretaries. Wherever there has been a conflict between the job she has been entrusted to do and her own political future, she has chosen the latter. Nowhere more so than in the arbitrary banning orders in response to Twitter hate mobs – be it Tyler the Creator or Roosh V. The Home Secretary's role is quasi-judicial – she's the last line of defence in certain cases, to uphold British fair play. And she's behaved like a shit, carving up free speech by using these hapless provocateurs as body shields for her ascent to the top of British politics.
At the Home Office, she found herself desperately hacking at the immigration numbers to get to Cameron's "tens of thousands not hundreds of thousands", she ended up abolishing the two-year work visas traditionally applied to foreign students at the end of their degrees, clamping down heavily on ancestral visas for the kids and grandkids of expats, and raising the "minimum salary" requirements for continued visa renewal to an eye-watering £35,000. In the face of EU migration, even these measures have barely dented the numbers, meaning that she was waving the big frightening stick on illegal migration too: more raids, more deportations, more helpful "racist vans" driven around Barking.
There's something blandly, unimaginatively old school in her authoritarian streak. It's the world view of a lifelong "swot" who has never had her own collar felt in even the mildest manner – who thinks that the police can only ever be "the good guys". The Lib Dems nixed the original Snoopers' Charter, but since their oblivion, she has brought it back on her own – the government keeping everyone's calls, texts, emails, for a year or more.
Beyond even this, despite having been a Remain-er, she's one of that very 1990s brand of Tory who believes that the European Court of Human Rights is the source of all evils. In 2011, she gave a speech inaccurately suggesting that a man had been allowed permission to stay in the UK because he had a cat – and therefore "the right to a family life". "Regardless of the EU referendum," she later said, "my view is this: if we want to reform human rights laws in this country, it isn't the EU we should leave but the ECHR and the jurisdiction of its court." Which is a highly efficient tautology, and more evidence of her talent for saying while not saying.
On the other hand, she stunned the Police Federation in 2014, when she went to its conference with news that they had to break up a notoriously closed shop – risking the sort of low boos and slow handclaps last seen when Blair addressed the WI. Then followed it up by announcing a radical rethink on stop and search. Neither of which acts seemed designed to delight the Tory Associations that would have to greenlight her leadership.
May's parents both died within a year of her wedding – her father killed in a traffic accident as he pulled into the path of a Range Rover on the A40. Her mother dead of multiple sclerosis soon after. By 25, she was an orphan, and so it was to husband Philip that she turned in her grief.
He is also record-breakingly boring – it's a shared passion that fuels their long marriage. A non-rivalrous "nice guy", jolly and clubbable in a way that May is rumoured not to be, he was two years below her at Oxford. Immediately after graduating, he drifted into banking, and has drifted sideways and upwards ever since. Right now, he works for a company so boring it is called "Capital International", in a role so dull it is called "Relationship Manager". They're both huge cricket fans. She has campaigned to give Geoffrey Boycott a knighthood.
They never had children – though this hasn't been reported much in the press lately.
Her politics still remains cloudy, but her boringness is manifestly assured. So as May becomes Definitely Will, when the car comes to take her to the Palace, let us all rally round our new boring overlord. Let us cling to her boringness like a cup of hot Ovaltine, a hot water bottle, Specsavers reading glasses, a John Lewis bedside lamp, flossing, the Shipping Forecast, drifting off before midnight. She will send Britain to bed on time. And when we wake up, with a bit of luck, she will have, with the same boring details nerdism that regularly sees her tackling her Red Boxes till 3AM, sorted out the present fucking shitstom of cuckery, and everything, simply everything, will be A-OK. OK?
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