Can May save the Tories?

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New (unelected) prime minister Theresa May has had an easy time of it since June, but are the Tories' post-referendum blues really over? Sally Campbell thinks it is unlikely.

Theresa May has enjoyed a gentle stroll into her new, unelected, role as prime minister over the summer. While symbolically holidaying in neutral Switzerland, she has been able to relax as the Labour right has done its best to tear down Jeremy Corbyn.

The pre-referendum expectations of a Tory crisis if the vote was close or if Leave won seemed to be confounded. In fact, some 50,000 people joined the party in the two months after the referendum. This is small beer compared to the Labour Party’s meteoric growth under Jeremy Corbyn, but it is significant for a party whose membership halved under David Cameron, from around 300,000 in 2005 to around 150,000 when he left office.

One columnist wrote in the right wing London Evening Standard: “When Theresa May became prime minister the media scratched around for female comparisons. Was she Thatcher or Merkel? The nearest I can find so far is the Queen. Both are symbols of stability and permanence.” This comparison seems appropriate when you discover that lobbyists will be charged £3,000 for an hour’s lunch meeting with Theresa May at the party conference in October.

But what does May really represent in the Tory party? And can things continue so smoothly for her? It is worth remembering how she landed the top job. David Cameron barely drew breath before announcing his resignation after the referendum went the wrong way for him. A semi-formal leadership battle commenced, following a system whereby MPs effectively choose the candidates, who are then voted on by members (if there are three candidates in the running).

May had been gradually building up her reputation as Home Secretary under Cameron. She is known as strongly anti-migrant and has used the filthy language of “our culture” being ruined by foreigners. In the Home Office she was responsible for the Prevent agenda, attempts to cut down on overseas students, and many other racist attacks on the rights of migrants and Muslims.

She was seen as the “moderate” candidate in the leadership race.

But the rabid Tory membership was entirely capable of voting for one of the more “extreme” candidates — Boris Johnson, the “winner” of the referendum, who was humiliated into withdrawing when his key backer Michael Gove announced his own candidacy instead; Gove, the widely despised former education secretary who was scuppered by pressure from MPs; or Andrea Leadsom, another right wing minor minister whose leadership bid fell apart under pressure from the right wing tabloids.

And so May was the last candidate standing and was duly appointed without contest. Though she was initially played as the “continuity candidate”, when she came to form her cabinet she was anything but. Half of Cameron’s ministers were chucked out, including chancellor (and long time enemy of May’s) George Osborne. And May brought back some of the odious figures we thought, or at least hoped, we had seen the back of — Johnson, Liam Fox, David Davis. She also kept the hated Jeremy Hunt in his job as health secretary.

Her initial speeches drew on rhetoric of “uniting Britain” and a “country that works for everyone”. She announced her intention to bring back grammar schools — symbols of an age in which the majority of working class kids were given no opportunities, stuck in secondary modern schools with few resources, while a small minority of lucky ones and the middle classes (like May) could imagine they were getting ahead through hard work.

Here May is different from Cameron — she represents a slight break from the Old Etonians. Though like Thatcher in that respect, May is not a Thatcherite in economic policy, and she is not considered a great friend of the City as Cameron was. This explains her insistence at her first cabinet meeting that in the Brexit negotiations she would not compromise on border control in order to gain favourable access to the single market. May is viciously committed to “controlling immigration”.

And it is the Brexit negotiations and the context in which they will take place, which bring back to the surface the tensions that were submerged over the summer. She brought in key “Brexiteers” — Johnson, Fox and Davis — to oversee the departments most closely involved in the negotiations. But she and the majority of her cabinet voted to remain. Some in the party want to leap ahead with the process as fast as possible, while others urge “extreme caution”. Some, like May, want to prioritise tighter immigration controls while others, and chiefly the City of London, want to maintain as much as possible Britain’s access to the single market.

These debates and fissures will not simply be resolved inside No 10. Factors such as the economic situation, the French and German elections next year along with other developments in Europe, and more, will widen the cracks. Most importantly, what we do matters. The escalation by junior doctors will be the first real test of whether our side can take the battle to her door.