There’s an easy article to write on Theresa May’s speech and it goes a lot like this: it was a bankrupt address, both morally and intellectually. It was full of the lazy tricks of a second-tier politician – the use of the phrase “close to zero” to describe the benefits of immigration is one of those rhetorical devices meaning “actually quite a lot more than zero” – and the policy, such as it was, was dire.
So, to reiterate: Britain is open for business if that business involves turning a blind-eye to human rights abuses in China in exchange for some direct investment. But if your business is selling higher education – and don’t forget that higher education is, as well as a public good one of the country’s best exports – or research: thanks, but no thanks, go back where you came from.
But to do that is to misread May’s speech was really about, and its intended audience. In fact, handwringing from the metropolitan right, the liberal left, and New Statesman journalists is very much a good day at the office as far as May is concerned.
The Home Secretary’s speech was a desperate gambit by a politician staring retirement in the face. May is 59 – two years older than David Davis when he was defeated by David Cameron – and is sufficiently opposed to George Osborne on social, economic, foreign policy and security issues to make political survival at the top level of an Osborne administration impossible. The battle beween Boris Johnson and Osborne dominates the attention. Younger candidates who can offer a genuine fresh start, like Nicky Morgan, are eating up airtime too. This was a desperate cry for relevance, aimed at Tory MPs – with half an eye on party members, too.
How did it do on those grounds? The initial response from the parliamentary party is lukewarm at best. “It’s not her speeches, it’s her record,” one quipped: for all the scaremongering, for all the families split apart, and the academics deported, immigration is still going up. She is still, despite five years at the Home Office, the subject of hostility for her “nasty party” speech.
And the big hole in the speech was noticed just as much by Conservative members and activists as anyone else: if immigration is as awful as May makes out, the only way is to leave the European Union. And unless – or perhaps, untill – May turns her rhetoric into genuine support for a European exit, it will continue to fall flat, not just among the pro-migration left but on the right as well.