Theresa May’s speech in Birmingham was a daring one for a candidate in the Conservative leadership election. Though she offered some red meat to the Tory right by declaring that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, she floated other ideas that made her sound like she was coming at the Tory leadership from the direction of the Labour Party.
She called for more house building, and a proper industrial strategy, She emphasised that workers and local communities have a stake in firms such as Cadbury's, implicitly criticising Gordon Brown’s government for allowing to be sold to the giant US food company, Kraft.
She also declared that “we need to take about tax…tax is the price we pay for living in a civilised society” – a line so obviously true and so unusual in the mouth of a politicain that Tony Blair would have shied away from saying it.
That was the Home Secretary talking to the country. She could not have known that she was barely 60 hours away from taking up residence in 10 Downing Street, but she sounded so confident of seeing off Andrea Leadsom that she did not try to pitch her appeal to hard line Tories, but instead tried to reassure potential Tory voters that her election would not mean a return of the ‘nasty party’ – her old description of how other people saw the Conservatives.
That was the Theresa May she wanted the electorate at large to see. There was another, who spoke from the platform at the annual Conservative conference last October to a hall packed with paid up party members.
It was, in effect, her annual report to the party faithful. A Home Secretary has many responsibilities. She could have talked about the police, tackling gang violence, combatting drug abuse, equal rights, or generally how to ensure that law-abiding Britons did not live fear of criminals But she did not. She devoted her entire speech to the single subject of immigration.
She began by talking about the 1.7 million refugees who fled Syria’s ghastly civil war, whose desperate plight was in the new every day. They were people deserving of help, she agreed: but that help should take the form of aid dispensed to those who had done what the UK government wanted them to do, by staying in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, not to those who have fled to Europe. She defended the government’s decision to accept no more than 5,000 Syrian refugees a year, and criticised Angela Merkel for deciding that Germany would take in 800,000 refugees, which she believed was an inducement for people from all over the world to try to get into Germany.
Meanwhile, she painted a scary picture of an island under threat from millions of would-be migrants, of whom thousands were actively engaged in trying to enter illegally.
“There are millions of people in poorer countries who would love to live in Britain, and there is a limit to the amount of immigration any country can and should take. We must have an immigration system that allows us to control who comes into our country." she said.
"Britain does not need net immigration in the hundreds of thousands every year… not every person coming to Britain right now is a skilled electrician, engineer or doctor… there is no case, in the national interest, for immigration on the scale we have experienced over the last decade.”
She then set out what in her view needed to be done to avert this threat. That included cutting benefits claimed by immigrants, making it harder for migrants to claim asylum in Britian, refusing all asylum claims for nationals of other EU countries, exhorting other EU states to accept fewer asylum cases, and checking up on foreign students to make sure they left the country when they had finished their studies.
As for the suggestion that Europe might work towards a common immigration and asylum policy, her answer was “not in a thousand years”. How she imagined she was going to be around until 3015 to make sure her commands were obeyed is something she did not explain.
This was the voice of another Theresa May – the same Home Secretary who has wanted for years to reverse human rights legislation that limits the power of government, and who pushed to get the Investigatory Powers Bill, otherwise known as the ‘snoopers’ charter’ onto the statute books, and who was accused of tampering with a Whitehall report to remove the bits that suggested that punitive laws were not an effective way of dealing with illegal drug use.
For a long time, her record on gay rights was a cause of concern to those battling for equality, though it appears that she seems to have had a change of heart, because in 2013 she voted in favour of gay marriage. Whether any of her other hardline opinions will soften once she has stepped through 10 Downing Street's famous black door remains to be seen.
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