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4 July 2016

Theresa May’s good day in the office highlights how scary post-Brexit Britain is

The evidence is that her party members will reward her for her hardline stance. 

By Stephen Bush

Theresa May has had a bad day at the office, at least as far as SW1 is concerned. The Home Secretary has come under fire for the suggestion – made by her and two of her supporters, the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and the junior Home Office minister James Brokenshire – that the right to remain in the United Kingdom for EU nationals currently living here could be up for negotiation in post-Brexit talks for the European Union.

It’s been accompanied by a series of positive noises about Andrea Leadsom who looks most likely to face her in the final round of the Conservative leadership race – Tory MPs whittle down the shortlist to a field of two, who go forward to a race between party members – from the right-wing press and with the bookmakers’ odds on Leadsom’s chances tightening.

It’s allowed Leadsom – the preferred candidate of much of the Tory right and of Ukip – to outflank May on the left, saying that the right to remain of EU nationals should be respected, no matter what.

But May will consider it a good day in the office. She is, after all, the same politician who has spent the last six years deporting graduates, and upping the new salary requirements for non-EU residents (who must earn £35k to stay) which, among other things, threaten an exodus of nursing and teaching staff from the Commonwealth and Australia in short order.

But we know what the political consequences of that hardline stance so far have been, as least as far as Conservative members are concerned: a double-digit lead over her nearest rival for the Conservative leadership and a landslide victory in a one-on-one race, according to YouGov’s first poll of the race. She also leads her nearest rival, the now-deposed Boris Johnson, by 17 points.

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Yes, polls have taken a battering following the election and referendum, but YouGov’s record in measuring the sentiments of party members is flawless thus far, having called the results of all five leadership elections since YouGov was founded.

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Much has changed since that first poll, not least the implosion of Johnson’s candidacy, but there are reasons to believe that May remains the favourite against Leadsom. Across a range of attributes, she is the highest-rated by Conservative members – “strongest leader” (44 per cent against four per cent for Leadsom, “best at uniting the party”, 46 per cent to Leadsom’s nine per cent), “best reflects your own views and priorities”, 28 per cent against Leadsom’s 10 per cent, tough decisions, 46 per cent against Leadsom’s five per cent, handling a crisis 49 per cent to five per cent, and, crucially, is the preferred choice to negotiate a new relationship with the European Union.

Of course, an astute campaign could change all that. One of Leadsom’s underrated strengths is that she very closely resembles the average Conservative member in the country – independently wealthy, very much resembling the chair of a parish council or a neighbourhood watch, doubtless in possession of a large house where footwear is removed in the hall. She is a little younger than the average Tory activist but that resemblance to the median voter will doubtless be an asset in the contest.

But the only data we have on the race so far is that May’s hard line on immigration, for all its economic and social consequences over the last six years, have only strengthened her in the membership.

It comes back to one – of many – terrifying consequences of Britain’s Brexit vote: that Britain’s negotiating posture with the remaining 27 nations of the EU will be set not by the 17 million who voted to leave, or with an eye on the concerns of the 16 million who voted to stay.  Instead, it will be the 150,000 members of the Conservative party setting the terms.