By the time of the last election, Theresa May had been Shadow Education Secretary, Shadow Transport Secretary, Shadow Culture Secretary, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Shadow Leader of the House and Party Chairman – where she had enraged many Party activists by claiming that the Conservative Party was often considered to be “the Nasty Party”. She was first appointed to the Shadow Cabinet in 1999. I make that a change of post less than every two years.
This chopping and changing reflected not only the turbulence within the Party during that time, but a sense among those at the top that the MP for Maidenhead was diligent, competent, and hard-working, but lacked political weight. In 2010, she got lucky. The new Government had an extra man at the top – Nick Clegg – and wanted a woman in a big post to make up for it. May was dispatched to the Home Office.
All has not gone well. The Borders Agency remains unfit for purpose – or a “work in progress”, as the Home Office would put it. The passport application backlog saga was a reminder of that the department’s vulnerability. Security hawks believe that TPIMs, the Coalition replacement for Control Orders, are too weak. Civil libertarians think that she is preoccupied with reviving the so-called “Snoopers’ Charter”. Above all, one of her main missions has failed: to cut net immigration.
How is it, then, that May has been transformed in her four years as Home Secretary (she is now the longest-serving holder of the office for over 50 years) into a political heavyweight and a serious contender for Number 10 – regularly topping the ConservativeHome poll of future party leaders? Why is it that she is seen as such a success, at least by many party activists? The beginning of an answer can be found in an story she likes to tell about one of her predecessors.
In 2002, David Blunkett decided to create five “policing priority areas”. They were small: Camberwell Green in Southwark; the Grange estate in Stoke; Little Horton and Canterbury in Bradford; the West Ward in Rhyl and Stapleton Road in Bristol. The police responsible for those areas, Blunkett decided, couldn’t cope with the challenges they faced: so they would be directed from the Home Office itself.
The image of Blunkett himself directing beat patrols in Camberwell Green or dawn raids in Stapleton Road from his desk in Queen Anne’s Gate captures the ethos and spirit of the New Labour years: a belief that the answer to every problem was centralised command and control. May’s brief runs more narrowly than Blunkett’s did, since Labour later divested the Home Office of responsibility for prisons. Her mission has been to also make it run deeper – and better.
During her term, May has pared the Home Office back to dealing what she regards as essentials: security policy, border control, policy formation. The first is always fragile: successful Islamist terror attacks would threaten a breakdown of public order. But, like some dogged Canadian mountie, the Home Secretary has got her man, or men. Abu Hamza is gone. So is Abu Qatada. It is no secret that she believes more would follow were Britain out of the ECHR.
Immigration control has been an even more punishing assignment. The net migration target set her up to fail, since the flow of people from Britain had been exceeded by that coming in. And the mood of public disillusion is such that few believe there has been any policy toughening at all. But there has. The minimum income level for family visa sponsors has been raised. English language requirements have been stiffened. More than 600 bogus colleges have been closed.
Indeed, the Home Office claimed earlier this year that non-EU migration has fallen. The third part of the May policy is the sending of Labour’s centralising machinery to the scrapyard. Police authorities are now accountable to Crime Commissioners. Raising standards is in the hands of a new College of Policing. The new Chief Inspector of Police is Tom Winsor, the first non-police officer to hold the post. There is a National Crime Agency.
It is her policing reforms, above all, that explain the rise of May’s reputation, crystallised in that extraordinary speech to the Police Federation in which she hurled the kitchen sink at it – Ian Tomlinson, the sacking of PC Harwood, Plebgate, Stephen Lawrence, “allegations of rigged recorded crime statistics”, and “the role of the Federation itself”. “If you do not change of your own accord, we will impose change on you,” he told her poleaxed audience.
Few politicians would have dared take on an audience in that way – let alone the Fed. They would have been too worried about the “optics” of being shouted down. Or their speech would have been a spin device. This just isn’t true of May’s dense, detailed text. The same holds for her speech to this year’s Party Conference, which began with a denunciation of the way that stop and search is often carried out. Other politicians would have started with a safe applause line.
Words are easy; deeds harder. But on both the main measures used, recorded crime is down: policing plus reform plus austerity, added together, have not been followed by a rise. (Yvette Cooper, who warned of one, has been marginalised by May, both in the Commons and out of it.) There is intensity in the Home Secretary: in her revision of stop and search, in her campaigning for better police treatment of those with mental health problems, in her work against modern slavery.
But her passions are held in check, and uninformed by ideological zeal. What gets her going? The speech she made to ConservativeHome’s Conference last year, widely seen as a leadership manifesto, was sweeping in scope. None the less, its emotional core was strangely opaque. Perhaps she is best summed up by a New Labour slogan, deadly in its appeal to the pragmatic British: “What matters is what works.”
This is how her supporters like to pitch her: as a kind of British Angela Merkel. I am not sure if she could step up to the Conservative leadership. Time will tell, and the opening may not arise: her digging in over the European Arrest Warrant certainly won’t win her new friends on the backbenches. It shows a side of her that her friends admire but her critics dislike – complaining, along Gove-like lines, that she is a creature of the machine.
But one thing is clear: she has made the leap to the Home Office without falling. Metropolitan liberal? Mere functionary? Neither. May is the Vicar’s daughter from a conservative background who wanted to be an MP from the age of 12. She seems powered not so much by ideas, let alone ideology, but by a sense of vocation – as purposeful as it is inaccessible. The daring shoes, cautious politics, sense of duty, the touch of primness…all this is Victorian Values in a modern setting.
May would like to leave a Home Office in her image – stripped back to what she sees as the essentials, but with a bit more room for more work. For example, it has nabbed the lead for counter-extremism policy from DCLG. She also wants it to have a more expert policy-making capacity. It needs, she said recently, “to know in detail about specific crime trends, about policing methods and about what I call the drivers of crime”. To this she will turn if she stays in post for even longer.
This is the second article in a series this week on five reforming Conservative Cabinet members.