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“As the longest-serving Home Secretary in modern times, I have become increasingly preoccupied with controlling immigration.

We have had some successes in government.  We rooted out abuse of the student visa system, and the numbers went down.  We reformed family visas, and the numbers went down.  We capped economic migration from outside the EU, and – despite the growing economy – the numbers have remained stable.

And over the last year, we have ensured that more students from overseas without graduate jobs return home.  That has left one factor in place that prevents us from achieving our goal of reducing net immigration – namely, immigration from inside the EU.

That is why I have consistently said not only that the access to benefits of citizens from other EU countries must be reduced but that, as I put it in my speech to the Conservative conference last year, “the numbers coming in from Europe are unsustainable”.

It is now evident that, successful though the Prime Minister’s renegotiation has been in many ways, free movement on present terms will continue.  I will therefore be campaigning in the coming referendum for Britain to leave the EU – thereby regaining control of our borders, and making the reduction of net immigration at last achievable.

I do not take a different view from many of my colleagues lightly – let alone the Prime Minister, with whom I have worked closely for many years.

But it is my duty to the British people, as Home Secretary, to deliver the controlled immigration we have promised – and thus take the only course of action that can ensure we keep our word.”

At the level of high politics, Theresa May’s dramatic early morning announcement outside the Home Office – made amidst a hydra-headed mob of juddering cameras and bawling reporters – turned out to have an effect, perhaps a decisive one, on Britain’s future.

At a lower one, it put David Cameron on the spot and pushed Boris Johnson out of the limelight.

  • Cameron was put on the spot because he had to take a snap decision about whether or not to sack May from the Cabinet.  He had said that Ministers would not be permitted to take a differing view from him during the negotiation.  But although the Home Secretary had come early out of the traps to oppose his position – beaten to the punch only by Chris Grayling – she had done so a few hours after the negotiation was complete, not during it.  Cameron had anticipated the difficulty the previous summer; toyed with shifting May from the Home Office to Defence (a move he believed that she would not be able to refuse), and concluded that a major shuffle of his Cabinet pack was too risky.  Now, faced with the Home Secretary’s ambush, he had to take a decision one way or the other.  He concluded that, in the interests of Government workability and party unity, he would need the major Cabinet Leave campaigners in place after a Remain victory.  So he left May alone.  His decision was to have fateful consequences.
  • Boris was pushed out of the limelight because he lost first-mover advantage.  As the Cabinet member with the widest public appeal, the former Mayor of London had been the key catch for both the Remain and Leave campaigns.  Conscious of his electoral potency, wary of the ambiguous opinion polls, ever-cautious (he had left his decision to re-enter Parliament until almost the last possible moment) and faced with the biggest decision of his political life, he hesitated when Cameron declared his renegotiation “complete” and “a good deal for Britain”.  His decision to wait to see which way the snap polls would blow turned out to be fatal.  At a stroke, May had beaten him to the punch.  As Home Secretary, and thus the holder of one of the three great offices of state, she had seniority.  First, Priti Patel followed her.  Then, John Whittingdale.  By the time Boris came out for Leave at 10.00am, the Home Secretary had stolen a march on him, set the pace – and made a more persuasive case for her bona fides. Where she looked convincing, he seemed calculating.

The rest is history.  When Britain voted to leave the EU by 52 per cent to 48 per cent, May found herself in a position peculiarly analagous to Margaret Thatcher in 1975.  Where Edward Du Cann and Keith Joseph had hesitated, Thatcher had acted – and her courage in standing against Edward Heath propelled her to the leadership.

Boris and Michael Gove turned out to be the Du Cann and Joseph of their day.  When the dust cleared post-referendum, the Home Secretary was, as it were, the last man standing, or at least the most senior one.  Conservative MPs were looking for continuity, seniority and stability as they were consulted by the whips about the interim Prime Minister to be put in place before a leadership election.

All those qualities were present in May, plus a dash of courage.  Iain Duncan Smith, Grayling, Patel, John Whittingdale and remainder of the Cabinet members who’d campaigned for Leave inclined to the Home Secretary. David Cameron moved out of Downing Street and she moved in, appointing Duncan Smith as Chancellor.

In a leadership election at a more conventional time, May wouldn’t have had a prayer of defeating Osborne among Tory MPs or Boris among Party members.  But buoyed up by the authority of her new office, she walked the leadership contest that followed.  As I write, she is set fair to increase the Conservative majority in 2020 against a still-chaotic Labour Party…

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To be clear: I am not claiming that Theresa May will be the next Conservative leader or suggesting that she should be the next Conservative leader.

I am saying, however, that as the only holder of a great office of state who may yet back Leave – given the apparent transition of Philip Hammond to Remain – she is in a powerful political position.

If she goes for Leave and Leave wins, she will be among the beneficiaries of its victory.  If she goes for Leave and Leave loses, her presence in Cabinet would be useful as part of a healing exercise.

As the campaigns launch, many eyes are on the Mayor of London, but more should be on the Home Secretary.