Theresa May is far more conservative than you think
UK Politics: Bitter news for liberals – the prime minister really believes in her policies
Theresa May: The British prime minister has her own view of the world and it comes, if not from scripture, then at least from the Anglican cast of mind. Photograph: Paul Grover/AFP/Getty Images
On Easter Sunday, one of the least pious societies in the world heard an explicitly Christian message from its prime minister. As proof of Theresa May’s monopoly on British politics, her freedom to express herself like a midfielder given time on the ball, it revealed even more than the surveys that put her Conservatives 21 points ahead of the Labour opposition.
A leader who has to look over her shoulder does not air her faith with such confidence. Alastair Campbell, who advised Tony Blair as prime minister, called it a mistake. In the absence of serious competition, there is no such thing as a mistake.
The Easter message confirmed something about May that continues to escape some of the commentary about her. She is a believer in things. She has her own view of the world and it comes, if not from scripture, then at least from the Anglican cast of mind.
She favours a gentle society over a dynamic one, views the market with the suspicion of a mild social democrat and takes nationhood more seriously than the universalist end of Christianity tends to. None of these beliefs are extreme but they are held with enough strength to drive the government.
They are also lost on cynics. It has become customary to analyse May as the subject of external forces, particularly of the Tory right. When she pursues the hardest of exits from the EU, it is to please zealots in her party. When she softens her line a little, it is because their pressure has relented. When she revives academic selection in state schools, she must have the conservative press in mind.
The un-British prominence of the national flag in her staged photographs, the talk of a “red, white and blue” exit: these are try-hard bids for rightwing acceptance. In this view of events, she is more like an agent with a client to retain than a force of her own.
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“It’s worse than you think,” said Blair when the left asked him to drop his moderate manifesto once the document had fulfilled its narrow mission to attract voters. “I believe in it.” Our quickness to read political calculation into everything is not just ungenerous, it makes for bad analysis. May believes in her policies. If she had a lavish majority in parliament and no reason to heed her MPs, she would govern in much the same way.
Most conservative since Thatcher
The mistake is to assume that she feels cowed by her lack of a personal mandate – that her rise to the premiership without a serious contest or a general election, after a referendum in which she took the losing side, has made her the dutiful instrument of Tory MPs.
There is no trace of this insecurity. The fact of power matters more than its manner of acquisition. If anything, she has managed to read into the EU referendum – which, to repeat, went against her – a long-suppressed public clamour for her version of exit, her domestic policies and her style of leadership.
As a clue to the future, her six years as home secretary were so telling as to deserve their own historical study. Cabinet colleagues tried to have her replaced with someone less hardline on immigration. A normal politician would have eased the policy to buy off the pressure. She did not even pretend. This is bitter news for the liberal-minded but Britain has its most culturally conservative leader since at least Margaret Thatcher and, given the Tory’s enthusiasm for markets, perhaps before her, too.
Another predecessor, John Major, had to walk on eggshells around the Conservative right as their views were so alien. If May is more assured in their presence, it is not because her majority is any bigger (it is about the same) or because Tory backbenchers have mellowed over time (ask David Cameron, the previous prime minister, about that) but because her outlook is similar to theirs.
The British political system is so centralised that a government is often just the magnification of the prime minister’s instincts, and May’s are unmistakable. The implications go beyond the precise terms of the exit deal she will sign, to the policies that will shape the country once it gains that mercurial prize called independence.
At its best, May’s Britain will be vigilant to terror and give industrial strategy a chance to amount to more than it has in the past. At its worst, spirit-draining bureaucracy will set in and Britain will spurn able migrants with the zeal that other countries put into the worldwide competition for them.
Either way, it will be her doing, not that of her MPs, the media or even the electorate. To see this government’s work as the sum of outside pressures is to patronise and exonerate May all at once. It is worse than you think. She believes in it.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017