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Theresa May and the strange origin of her immigration policy (LDN #98)

Liberal Democrat Newswire logoLiberal Democrat Newswire #98 came out last week, focusing on Prime Minister (for the moment, at least) Theresa May, including the far from careful and considered origin of her signature immigration policy.

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Welcome to all 9,817 subscribers to Liberal Democrat Newswire #98. It comes at the end of a week overshadowed by the horrific news from Manchester, and so rightly rather lighter on political events than usual for the penultimate full week of a general election campaign. This time, therefore, I’ve gone for a slightly different take – mainly an extended look at Theresa May, as revealed by both events and the recent biography of her by Rosa Prince.

Best wishes,

Mark

P.S. Aching feet from delivering and canvassing? Make sure you’ve got blister plasters to hand.

In this edition:

What the Lib Dems believe – see my new graphic >>>

Theresa May and her husband enter 10 Downing Street - photo CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 courtesy of 10 Downing Street

The enigmatic Prime Minister

Biographies written of politicians soon after they become the leader of their party or Prime Minister have a very spotty track record. However well-written, and however well they fill that initial appetite for information about their subject, they frequently miss the key factors which end up shaping their subject’s high-profile political career. It is only with some hindsight that the relevant earlier parts of their lives and careers can be accurately identified.

So it was, already, with Rosa Prince’s biography of Jeremy Corbyn where what has become one of the defining features of his time as Labour leader – disorganisation and infighting amongst his own hand-picked team – barely featured in her early biography of him. With some hindsight, the roots of that are easy to see his earlier career, in which so much of his political success was built in turning up to things (protests against the Americans, local tenants’ association AGMs) rather than leading teams. But only with hindsight has that pattern become an obvious one to highlight.

Her new study of Theresa May, subtitled ‘The enigmatic Prime Minister’, risks a similar fate, especially as since it has come out there has been the decision to call an early general election. Whatever way that turns out, this will be a defining feature of May’s time in 10 Downing Street, and future biographies will carefully comb her earlier career for other signs of making big surprising decisions in secret, giving colleagues little time to prepare for their consequences.

Yet there are details which are likely to be relevant, and certainly currently feel like they help explain our Prime Minister. In particular, Prince expertly charts the frequently varying reputation of Theresa May in Conservative Shadow Cabinets and then in power. She repeatedly switched back and forth between being seen as mediocre and as top flight material, and between being seen as a safe pair of hands and as a maker of major gaffes. In that sense, the only thing remarkable about her general election performance has been the concentrated high-speed form in which it has captured her earlier political career.

Her very appointment to Home Secretary was something of an accident, as Prince recounts. She was catapulted from the middle ranks of the Conservative opposition team by the decision of David Cameron and George Osborne that they had to appoint a woman to at least one senior post. May and Home Secretary became the obvious combination to secure that desire to avoid an all-male top team. (Something, it should be said, that Nick Clegg did not see as a problem. He settled for an all-male Lib Dem Cabinet team.)

Ironically, Theresa May’s time as Home Secretary started with securing the role thanks to George Osborne’s insistence, and then ended with her sacking him as one of her first decisions on moving over to Prime Minister.

Also clear from the past is her deep reluctance to talk about private matters, with Prince even finding good grounds to hypothesise that Theresa May’s love of talking about her shoes in public is in part a deflection mechanism – it lets her talk about the sort of personal details that the media and public often push for, without actually getting very personal at all: “Over the years, May would establish as mall number of ‘safe’ personal topics, including her love of shoes, which she would roll out for journalists in interview after interview. Read one after another, they are strikingly repetitive. May deployed the same anecdotes time and time again … By wheeling out her safe stories, she also leaves little space for the trickier questions on personal matters that her reserved nature shrinks from”.

I’ve always been more impressed by politicians who refuse to feature their family in their political leaflets than by those who do (if you want your family to be treated as a private matter, don’t roll them out to secure political points). So May’s approach is one that instinctively chimes with me. Yet you can also see in this the reticence which in her less successful interviews and encounters with the public since becoming Prime Minister comes over as cold and stand-offish.

Theresa May and Angela Merkel - photo CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 courtesy of 10 Downing Street

A bearer of grudges

Rosa Prince writes:

Theresa May has picked an incredible number of bruising and sometimes rather unseemly fights … Once crossed, she would always seek revenge. Her grudges could last years. A victim might find themselves frozen out or treated with cool disdain until a right moment could be found for more savage retribution … Her special advisers … were more than happy to get their hands dirty on her behalf …

Over the six years she served as Home Secretary, May became embroiled in serious feuds with a staggering number of fellow ministers, MPs, officials, organisations and individuals who crossed her path.

Well, that’s not in the slightest worrying about a Prime Minister whose central policy is all about negotiating an enormously complex set of international deals with politicians who will frequently disagree with her as they pursue the interests of their own countries…

Theresa May and David Cameron - photo CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 courtesy of 10 Downing Street

Immigration: a signature policy based on a junior’s slip of the tongue in an interview

Rosa Prince writes of the repeated Conservative policy target, repeatedly missed, to cut net immigration to “tens of thousands”:

May’s aides are said to claim privately that the ‘tens of thousands’ pledge was arrived at by accident … No minister put a figure on the desired level of future immigration until November 2010, when Damian Green, May’s long-time friend and now the Immigration Minister working for her at the Home Office, under pressure on the BBC’s Newsnight, blurted out that a proposed immigration cap May had announced was ‘just one of the ways we will reduce net immigration to the tens of thousands’. The mention of the figure apparently took both Cameron and May by surprise.

Unflattering as this account is of the origins of Theresa May’s signature immigration policy, it has got even worse since Prince’s book was published. Rather than using the Conservative manifesto to drop it, she has confirmed it.

Theresa May and her husband enter 10 Downing Street - photo CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 courtesy of 10 Downing Street

Shades of Steve Hilton hang over Theresa May’s team

David Cameron’s former strategy director Steve Hilton did not leave behind a gaggle of admirer and fans when he left British politics. Rather, the main experience of those who worked with him it often seems – not only Lib Dems, but Conservatives too – is to point to the Hilton caricature in The Thick of It and complain that the fictional Stewart Pearson was far too mild, normal and sensible to capture the real Hilton. (This great profile captures the essence of him – but you must read it, in order, all the way to the last paragraph for the full effect.)

Yet in one respect I think Hilton is unfairly maligned. He got one key thing right: that post-Thatcher, the Conservatives needed a new ideological underpinning if they didn’t want to simply be a part of the past, of cuts, of empire nostalgia and of discomfort with a multicultural society. His Big Society enthusiasms didn’t cut it, but he did at least try.

Theresa May and her small inner team seem to recognise a similar need for a new ideology, with “Great Meritocracy” repeated throughout the Conservative general election manifesto. A simple word count has them appearing as often as each other although once you take page headers out of the equation, Brexit just edges it. (Hat tip to the Not Enough Champagne podcast for giving me the idea to check this.)

Even so, the very fact that one has to revert to such detailed counting to have Brexit comes out on top says something about how popular meritocracy is in the manifesto. Popular in the manifesto, and fitting with May adviser Nick Timothy’s approach to politics, but also at odds in many policy details with what most of the Conservative party believes. The Timothy policy prescriptions frequently lead to the sort of interventions in the market which, when championed by Vince Cable, Conservative MPs line up to condemn.

This is one of those respects in which Rosa Prince’s book is handicapped by being written so early for it does not dissect the roots of the Great Meritocracy, a phrase given birth as a major policy strand only after the book appeared. A post-election updated paperback edition will have much to chew over, but in the meantime, the existing hardback edition is a fascinating read.


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Best wishes and thank you for reading,

Mark

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