Like many Londoners, I spent last weekend huddled around a table with worried Remain friends. We were discussing possible permutations of the UK’s political future. Will there be an early general election? Will Corbyn resign? A friend then indicated that she was planning to join the Conservative party in order to vote for Theresa May in the upcoming party leadership contest. When I asked her whether she was still a Labour supporter, she shrugged and said: “Of course. But this is post-truth politics: anyone but Boris.”
I know how she feels. It’s a sentiment that has been echoed at work, at home, and in the editorials that I’m reading with an insistence approaching zeal. Johnson, an erstwhile “progressive” Conservative, the kind of conservative that we metropolitan, multicultural Londoners voted into mayoral power – twice! - has betrayed the very values that we hold dear.
The foppish hair and hopeless zip wire escapade have well and truly lost any bumbling charm they may have held when we thought he was Europe-facing. But while Boris’ flaws are well-documented, Theresa May’s record is being rewritten. She’s now cast as moderate, but has been anything but.
As a Canadian immigrant to the UK who has warily followed May’s choke hold on non-EEC immigration, I feel cold dread creeping down my neck every time May is touted as the more reasonable choice to Boris. Yes, she was quietly supportive of the Remain campaign, but May’s political history is staunchly more conservative, more anti-immigration, and more isolationist than Boris, however angry the 48 per cent is with him right now.
Over the course of her six year tenure as Home Secretary (the longest in history), May’s contentious rhetoric, aimed at pacifying Ukip swing voters, stoked the anti-EU fires long before Boris defected to Leave.
In 2010, she said that the UK could “reduce net migration without damaging [our] economy”.
The favourites in the Tory leadership race
The favourites in the Tory leadership race
1/5 Theresa May
The longest-serving Home Secretary in 100 years took a back seat in the referendum campaign. While backing Remain, she did not hit the campaign trail and delivered only a handful of speeches and interviews, and was critical of many aspects of the EU, particularly the European Convention on Human Rights. Hedging her bets allows her to now emerge as a ‘unity’ candidate, and she is said to have been building up her back-room staff in preparation for a leadership bid. She has the significant advantage of having served in one of the great offices of state, in a steady and competent manner that has won her many admirers within party and the civil service. At a time of great instability, it may be that she is viewed as steady hand on the tiller. Mrs May does however, lack the ‘star quality’ of a Boris Johnson and party members may doubt her ability to connect with ordinary voters
2/5 Michael Gove
The Justice Secretary may be able to set himself up as ‘the thinking Tory’s Brexit candidate’. Made an enormous political and personal decision to back Leave, taking on his old friend David Cameron. He performed well during the TV debates, and will be an admired figure among Eurosceptic Conservatives. Along with Johnson, he will be hindered by the fact that he led a very divisive campaign, characterised by ‘blue-on-blue’ action. MPs may also judge that he lacks Boris Johnson’s wider appeal with the electorate. Possibly more likely that he will settle for being his new bosom buddy Boris’s Chancellor
3/5 Stephen Crabb
Highly-rated Work and Pensions Secretary, raised on a council estate, so could reach out to non-traditional working class Tory voters
4/5 Andrea Leadsom
Minister of State for Energy at the Department of Energy and Climate Change is one of the most prominent figures in the Leave campaign, seen to have performed well in TV debates
5/5 Liam Fox
British Conservative MP and former Secretary of State for Defence, as sources said he will stand for the leadership of the Conservative Party
In 2011, students who had graduated from UK universities found themselves in the crosshairs of May's anti-immigrant vendetta. When before there had been a two-year visa, allowing those who had paid exorbitant international tuition fees for UK degree programmes to stay and work in the UK following their graduation, May revoked this visa type and introduced further restrictions on employers sponsoring new graduates. Her speech explaining this decision was full of fear-mongering, citing a small proportion of students who “took advantage” of the government’s generosity as a reason to axe the full programme.
Those in Cornwall will not have forgotten the plight of the Engels family, caught in the 2012 non-European Economic Area family migrants rules. A UK woman and her young daughter had to move to South Africa because the UK woman’s salary was insufficient to “maintain” her South African-born husband – the minimum salary for maintenance, £18,600, was applied by May equally throughout the country, even though Cornwall has a far lower cost of living, and lower average salary, than elsewhere.
In 2015, May continued to ratchet up the anti-EU sentiment in a fiery anti-immigrant speech, saying that it is “impossible to build a cohesive society” where there is immigration. She also introduced a £200 annual “immigrant health surcharge” for those in possession of work visas. This means that, because the NHS is funded by general taxation, immigrants who are fit and healthy enough to have received a job offer are being double-charged for healthcare, even though study after study shows that working-age immigrants are healthier and draw from the NHS far less than those born in the UK.
Just this year, May set the minimum salary for immigrants who have already lived in the UK for five years to £35,000, if they simply want to continue to do so. These are people who have spent five years paying taxes, doing their jobs, and integrating into the country. The Home Office itself admitted that the health and education sectors, among others, will be adversely impacted by this new salary threshold as it is implemented.
If her record on immigration fails to send a chill down your spine, then consider one of May’s very first acts in the role of Home Secretary: in 2010, she ensured that public bodies no longer had to actively try to reduce inequality.
This departure from a key tenet of the Equality Act was not an isolated step; three years later, May expressed her disdain for the Human Rights Act, telling the Sunday Telegraph that she “personally” felt that it had caused problems in the UK.
And, to the dismay of her party, May spent late April 2016 – the eleventh hour of the EU referendum campaign - saying that the UK should leave the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), contradicting other Tory MPs and forcing Downing Street to clarify that the Remain campaign was not pushing for this extreme measure. Other Tories came out to say that this opinion was untenable, since the ECHR is a prerequisite for membership in the EU.
Was May really a Remainer, or a closer Leaver? Either way, by staying silent through much of the campaign, she was playing as personal and political a game as Boris Johnson.
Rebecca Glover is a research fellow at the Policy Innovation Research Unit
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