Theresa May played a relatively minor role in the referendum, casting herself as a “reluctant Remainer”. That balancing act was rewarded with the support of a number of Vote Leave’s biggest beasts, including Chris Grayling, who chaired her leadership campaign. She has pledged that “Brexit means Brexit” but says that she will give priority to safeguarding Britain’s access to the single market. Conventional wisdom suggests that will entail accepting some freedom of movement: a tricky sell to the millions of people who believed they were voting for lower immigration.
She will try to negotiate with Brussels before invoking Article 50 and starting the two-year countdown to Britain’s exit from the EU. Accordingly, the markets rose on the news that Leadsom had withdrawn.
“Sometimes I think only Theresa and I actually believe in our immigration policy,” David Cameron is said once to have complained at cabinet. Although in policy terms the Conservative pledge to cut net migration to the “tens of thousands” was an utter failure, May as home secretary was a tireless defender of the pledge.
Her failed attempt to get Britain’s net migration figure down made May the enemy of the higher education sector and business community after her toughened visa restrictions led to thousands of postgraduates being denied the right to remain in Britain. It paid dividends for May, however, with more than one of the 199 MP supporters citing her tough stance on immigration.
She now faces a different calculus. As home secretary, she pursued an anti-immigration agenda with no serious thought for the economic consequences – or the impact on public services, with both schools and hospitals likely to feel the strain when restrictions on non-EU nationals earning less than £35,000 kick in. As Prime Minister, a similar course would be disastrous.
“Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes, and it doesn’t mean that capitalism, regardless of the form it takes, is always perfect. Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.” That’s not Ed Miliband or Jeremy Corbyn but Theresa May in 2013. In her first intervention during her shorter-than-expected leadership campaign, she borrowed from the Miliband playbook again with a pledge to put workers on company boards.
Although she was a supporter of the austerity programme, junking Osborne’s fiscal targets (and his misguided aspiration to create a budget surplus by 2019) was one of the first announcements of her leadership campaign.
May’s campaign was run by her former chief of staff Nick Timothy, who took unpaid leave from his current position as director of the New Schools Network, an organisation that advises those who want to start free schools. Her support for free schools is therefore not in doubt.
The larger question is what happens to the plans to force all eligible schools to become academies, which many in the party regard as overambitious and needlessly unpopular. May herself is a former grammar-school pupil and backed her local council’s attempt to open a satellite to an existing grammar school in her Maidenhead constituency. “May is a tricky one on schools. She has been very quiet on them,” says Laura McInerney of Schools Week magazine, “but the clues are there that she’s likely to push for more grammars and free schools.”
Although much of her tenure as home secretary did not endear her to liberals, May won rave reviews for her 2014 assault on the police over domestic violence, Hillsborough and the misuse of stop-and-search. In 2015 she also warned the Police Federation to “stop crying wolf”. After the first speech, Labour’s Chuka Umunna telephoned to thank her for putting the issue of stop-and-search – which had disproportionately targeted black men – into the political mainstream.
On civil liberties, it is almost as if there were two Theresa Mays. Her cynicism towards the use and abuse of police powers is in stark contrast to the red carpet rolled out for the security services. As home secretary, she was an enthusiastic advocate of surveillance.
The new Prime Minister’s long tenure at the Home Office has given her little opportunity to set out her beliefs on other matters, including foreign policy. She voted in favour of the Iraq War in 2003 and for intervention in Syria in 2013 and 2015. She voted against taking in more child refugees who had reached Europe, and promised that all refugees would be screened twice before entry in case they were terrorists. She first visited Israel in 2014, and later that year she told a Conservative Friends of Israel meeting: “I –
and the whole British government – will always defend Israel’s right to defend itself.”
On social issues, her views have evolved. She voted not to repeal Section 28 (which banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools) in 2000, but backed civil partnerships in 2004 and same-sex marriage a decade later, declaring: “If two people care for each other, if they love each other, then they should be able to get married.”
She also won the admiration of many in the feminist movement by introducing a law to criminalise “coercive control”, a tactic often used by domestic abusers. However, there is disappointment at the continued detention of women at the Yarl’s Wood immigration centre.
Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, told Jason Cowley this week: “Theresa really does believe in compassionate conservatism. Her speech this week about putting workers on boards was groundbreaking for a Conservative leader. This is potentially huge for us because we’ve got to become the party of social justice.”
We shall see.