Magazine article The Spectator

In Search of Mayism

Magazine article The Spectator

In Search of Mayism

Article excerpt

The PM is likely to reign unchallenged for at least six years. What will she do with her power?

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. …

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