How do we make sense of Theresa May? At times she appears to be two entirely different home secretaries, and two unrecognisably contrasting political personalities.
May delivered what was, by some margin, the best political speech of the year when she addressed the annual conference of the Police Federation in early summer. Urging the potentially intimidating audience to reform and modernise, she gave a speech that was forensic and brave.
Contrast her authoritative performance then with the chaotic shambles of the inquiry into allegations of child sex abuse, over which she has tentatively presided. Since the summer, two chairs of the inquiry have been and gone. Now the investigation might be disbanded in its current form. We have an authoritative Home Secretary with a clear sense of reforming zeal. We have another Home Secretary seemingly incapable of establishing an inquiry.
The wider contrast also takes some explaining. On the few occasions I have spent time with May, she has come across as shy, decent, focused and without huge amounts of guile. A few years ago, when she was still in opposition, I was on an Any Questions panel with her.
She seemed authentically self-effacing, admitting beforehand to being nervous. In opposition, May was also a regular interviewee on a Sunday TV programme I presented, always assiduously loyal and, over coffee afterwards, unswervingly polite. Yet now she is at the centre of every political row in government, battling it out at different times with David Cameron, Michael Gove and others, apparently seeking the leadership with a ruthless ambition that makes Boris Johnson seem laid back.
Perhaps May is a split personality, leaping from authoritative self-confidence in her dealings with the police, to chaotic insecure shambolic handling of an inquiry – from polite diffidence to a wildly provocative pursuit of leadership ambition. Probably there is an alternative explanation.
On the whole, a long-serving Home Secretary like May must be fairly tough and competent. The Home Office is a demanding test of a minister and many do not survive for long. May will have survived for five wearying years. Therefore we should not be surprised that she took on the police in the way that she did. Evidently she is robust, or else she would not be about to complete a full term at the Home Office. What needs explaining therefore is the chaos surrounding the abuse inquiry.
The Labour MP Simon Danczuk suggests that victims would be justified in concluding that May and others at the Home Office are deliberately making a mess of it all. On the Today programme yesterday he put it carefully by suggesting, “You can’t help thinking they are deliberate mistakes”, and that it would be understandable if victims assumed they “don’t want to get to the truth”. Danczuk is smart enough not to state that he has concluded they are deliberate mistakes, but he puts the idea out there as one possible explanation.
The allegation makes no sense. Peter Saunders, from the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, supports the move to disband the current inquiry and start all over again. Indeed, he and other victims had written to May asking for her to consider whether the panel of experts had too many possible connections with those they may be investigating, an echo of their concerns with the two chairs who have been and gone. May’s sympathetic response was leaked. Far from viewing this latest development as part of a cover-up, victims appear to welcome it.
So there must be another explanation as to why this whole affair has been a darkly comic muddle. Clearly, May is confident enough to take on the Police Federation, but she is not inclined to act in any way over the inquiry that alienates the alleged victims. She made a judgement in effect to let the victims determine the nature of the inquiry and the composition of those investigating.
The figures that were chosen to chair the inquiries would probably have completed the investigation as satisfactorily as anyone else. But the perception that they might not have done so was enough to finish them off. It seems the same applies to members of the panel. In other words, what we are witnessing is precisely the opposite of a cover-up. May has made a judgement that perceptions of purity or impurity matter as much as the reality.
In my view she made a misjudgement, but not a colossal one. It is not easy going ahead with an inquiry when the alleged victims have no faith in those conducting it. The Home Secretary who made that impressive speech to the Police Federation is not entirely different from the one that presides over a shambles in relation to the abuse inquiry.
What of the shy Home Secretary who causes of storms of internal anger as she pursues her leadership ambitions? Again there need not necessarily be a contradiction. A competent long-serving female Home Secretary is bound to be considered as a possible leader. She would not be human if she were not one of those making the consideration. To some extent she has had the expectation of leadership thrust upon her.
When she was the main speaker at the ConservativeHome conference two years ago, the anticipation of her speech was so intense she had become a potential leadership candidate before she had uttered a word at the conference. Some of those attending willed her to become a leader-in-waiting. I felt she became one on that day.
Ever since, her actions have been viewed through the prism of personal ambition, and her lack of political guile means that she can sometimes be easily misread. Not every act is necessarily accomplished with the leadership in mind. She takes her brief seriously. She fights her corner as Home Secretary. She is loyal to her staff, including her special advisers, who have themselves been centres of storms. Some of the storms make it less likely that she will be leader, which is why not all of the tempests should be seen as part of a leadership bid, even though leadership is on her mind.
There are no sweeping contradictions. May is shy, lacking in overt political guile and, yet, an almost certain leadership candidate. She is also capable of delivering the speech of the year and making the wrong judgement in a highly sensitive area that leads to disproportionate chaos. The context rather than the personality causes the storms, a Home Secretary battling it out on several fronts, as all home secretaries do, when a leadership contest might take place as early as next year.
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