Kathy Sheridan: Theresa May deserves neither our pity nor our admiration
In our rush to sympathise and praise we almost forgot Brexit is about immigration
There is something a little icky about the sudden lovefest surrounding Theresa May. The sudden focus on the resilience, the steeliness, the stamina, the integrity, the isolation. The awkward, admirable, unembarrassable stasis of her. The beastly misfortune in being lumbered with snarling, narcissistic men around the cabinet table and braying at her from the back benches.
When she went to the House of Commons with her deal, a full hour elapsed in that pitiless parliament before even one of her own party spoke up in her support. She was so profoundly alone, so friendless, so obviously a martyr to her long-promised “best-possible deal”, that a palpable wave of sympathy swept through the plain people.
We felt her pain, nodding mournfully that she was doing her honest best with the terrible cards she had been dealt. Meanwhile, the flouncing man-babies around her couldn’t even organise a small letter-writing campaign to depose her because they don’t do arithmetic. Hah. Good old Theresa, tower of strength.
In all her lonely integrity, May played her trump card
Then the real Theresa May popped up again. In all her lonely integrity, she played her trump card; the one certain to remind her cross-party, domestic audience of who she is and what Brexit is all about. In our rush to sympathise and admire, we almost forgot. It’s the not-at-all-the-lonely passion of Theresa May. It’s about immigration, stupid.
“EU citizens will no longer be able to jump the queue” for jobs in the UK, she pronounced in that oddly accusatory tone on Monday. And millions of human beings who thought they were just responsible EU citizens in a reciprocal, mutually-beneficial, rights-based arrangement, were landed right back to that shocking June morning when they realised that to many of their neighbours and even their own extended families, they would always be aliens.
In a ghastly kind of cognitive dissonance, May is happy to declare the UK open to the EU for economic purposes while simultaneously dismissing the people that are the raison d’etre of that visionary project, delivering a gratuitous slap to us all in the process.
That queue-jump term was no misspeak. It crystallises the image of May as the architect of the Go Home vans and the human calamity that is the Windrush scandal.
The same Theresa May who in just a few months managed to travel from muted Remain voter to the full-throated, unambiguously offensive “citizens of nowhere” address. The Theresa May who warned of dangerous elements waiting to be unleashed on opponents of what she called this “quiet revolution”.
The Theresa May who delivered the Lancaster House speech, with its reckless, non-negotiable red lines ruling out the single market and the customs union, none of it reconcilable with a seamless border on this island.
The hubristic Theresa May who invoked article 50 without a sniff of a plan. The Theresa May whose judgment was laid bare in her decision to call a snap election that left her in thrall to unsackable ministers and all of us at the mercy of the DUP, their dark money and head-melting version of morality and democracy.
Few people are silly enough to deny that immigration control is necessary, complex and contentious
Reasonable people change their minds when the facts change. But no facts have changed here so what are we applauding beyond her steely determination to put party before country right up to a few weeks ago?
Few people are silly enough to deny that immigration control is necessary, complex and contentious. But where is the leaderly voice stating plainly that for 18 years, European Union law has allowed governments to control movements of EU citizens? Do UK voters know that EU citizens may circulate only for three months before being required to show that they are either working, a registered student or are self-supporting and hold comprehensive health insurance? Have they asked why Britain chose not to exercise those controls?
‘Brightest and best’
As for that sweet notion about extending a more liberal visa regime to non-EU workers instead, check out May’s words while in India, just two years ago. Britain was already able to attract the “brightest and best” from outside the EU, she declared; “nine out of 10 visa applications from India are already accepted. We have, I believe, a good system.” They do. Companies and laboratories identify the talent they want and if the talent is from outside the EU, it is the Home Office (Theresa May’s beat from 2010 to 2016) not the EU, that dictates the barriers. So what’s it all about?
Rather than applaud Theresa May, I wish her luck and judgment. Steadfastness is what she does. It doesn’t always make it right.