Febrile times. Young people no longer talking to their parents, accentuated divisions between urbanites and those outside the big cities and worst of all: a 500% reported spike in racist incidents in the first week after the EU Referendum, which apparently has now “stabilised” at a 50% increase.
The politicians who stirred up these passions have quickly vacated the political stage. Nigel Farage has gone as UKIP leader, Boris Johnson ran away from the Tory leadership race and now Angela Leadsom has also fled the contest. The carelessness with which they lied about migrants being responsible for everything from the housing crisis to sexual assaults has been matched by a collective cowardice to deal with the mess they created.
Now Theresa May gets an early coronation - and a great deal of free, positive publicity from all wings of the mainstream media, about her alleged bravery, competence, tenacity, moral vision, one-nation values, sisterhood and willingness to listen. But it’s worth remembering that less than a year ago she made a speech at Tory Party Conference that was summarised, not by The Guardian, but the Daily Telegraph, as: “Immigrants are stealing your job, making you poorer and ruining your country. Never mind the facts, just feel angry at foreigners. And make me Conservative leader.”
In a recent Comment piece in The Times, lawyer Miriam González notes that Theresa May claims she can unite not just the Tory Party but the country. “But the first step she took in her campaign to run the country could not have been more divisive, suggesting she would use the presence of EU nationals in the UK as a bargaining chip in Brexit negotiations.” Link
There has been plenty of media analysis contrasting May’s campaign commitments with her actual record, for example Link
Likewise there have been many attempts to read between the lines of her campaign speeches to determine what she might actually do in office. The Independent’s John Rentoul, for instance, detects a rejection of Osbornomics in her views on monetary policy.
The details of Austerity may change but if the markets rallied at the prospect of May taking over it’s because they see the speedy settlement of the Tory leadership contest as an opportunity to push forward an aggressively neoliberal agenda. This was clear from the post-Brexit statement of the Centre for Policy Studies, which hailed “a unique political opportunity to drive through a wide ranging supply-side revolution on a scale similar to that of the 1980s. This must include removing unnecessary regulatory burdens on businesses, such as those related to climate directives and investment fund regulations.” Link
Labour Party socialists will feel a little queasy that the Tories appear to be uniting behind May while our Party’s divisions seem set only to intensify. But three things should be borne in mind. Firstly, Theresa May supported, albeit in a low-key way, the Remain campaign, so her ascendancy will not automatically overcome the internal divisions in the Tory Party, which are likely to resurface once the detailed negotiation on Brexit begins.
Secondly, she's media-shy. All the praise about quiet competence cannot mask the fact that a discomfort with the necessity to present oneself as a public commodity is a huge failing - as Gordon Brown’s premiership demonstrated.
Thirdly, she's cautious, so, notwithstanding the advice of colleagues, she may be unlikely to rush into an early election. Of course, we welcome the opportunity to challenge the Tories at the polls and Jon Trickett, Labour’s campaigns and elections chair, was right to put the Party on a war footing to prepare for this. Furthermore, the slimness of the Tory parliamentary majority still makes a general election before 2020 more likely than not. But if there is not a rush to the polls this autumn, this gives us a bit more time not only to consolidate but also to put in place some candidates who accurately reflect the majority feeling within the Party at present.