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The Liberal Democrats have had to forego a summer of attention in order to prepare for the possibility of another national vote.
Vince Cable has announced the timetable for his replacement as leader of the Liberal Democrat leader, with the field of candidates to be confirmed on 7 June and the winner to be unveiled on 23 July.
The contrast between the two exits could not be greater. Cable formally steps down having made gains in every election he led his party into, and as the man who presided over the most successful set of local elections in the party’s history. Theresa May steps down leaving an open question over whether the Conservative party can survive in its current form.
But the timing – the two contests will run concurrently – means that the contest to replace Cable will receive hardly any coverage, while the race to replace May as Prime Minister will dominate.
It is a boost for Jo Swinson, the current frontrunner, as a short contest makes it harder for any challenger to get up a head of steam. Ed Davey, the former climate change secretary, could make a formidable challenge in the right circumstances, but may struggle given the lack of attention the contest will now have.
It is a blow for the Liberal Democrats, however, and not because Swinson is a bad candidate, but because, for the minor parties, their biggest challenge is simply getting any attention at all. Before Theresa May’s position dramatically worsened over the past week, many Liberal Democrats were quietly looking forward to a quiet summer of paralysis, in which the only moving political story would have been the contest to replace Cable. That won’t happen, though on the upside, the potential for the contest to turn fractious is considerably lessened as a result.
So why has Cable gone now and not waited until the August, when the same dynamic would apply? Well, there is a very real chance that there will now be an election in the summer or the autumn, as whoever wins the Conservative leadership election may well have had to promise things over Brexit, economic policy and who knows what else that cannot be reconciled with this parliament.
But it also means that his replacement may have a very challenging introduction to life at the top of the party indeed – as they may need to move almost immediately from being elected to running a general election campaign.Photo: Getty
It means there is less time available for the former foreign secretary to squander his early advantage.
Boris Johnson has won an early boost in the Conservative leadership election, thanks to the timetable. CCHQ, and the backbench 1922 Committee, have set out how the process will work, with a series of hustings among MPs to be conducted over the month of June and a short, sharp contest among ordinary Conservative members over the month of July.
It makes it significantly shorter than any of the three leadership elections Labour have held since re-entering opposition in 2010, and while the 2005 Conservative leadership contest won by David Cameron was technically of equivalent length, as it only kicked off officially on 7 October, Michael Howard had announced his intention to stand down in May of that year, and the election-winning speech given by Cameron at Conservative party conference had already been delivered by the time the contest began.
The short race hands a palpable advantage to the established candidates, because their perceived strengths and weaknesses are already well known to both MPs and party members. At the moment, Tory MPs, even former diehard opponents of Johnson’s, are inclined to support the former Mayor of London – because the polls are dire and he is, in the eyes of many Conservative MPs, a surefire winner who still has the same political golden touch that allowed him to win London twice, the second time in a year in which Conservative candidates were being defeated all over the rest of the country.
For any frontrunner, whether they are in a strong or a weak position, the longer the contest, the bigger the risk as it gives time for things to change. That Johnson has already complicated his path to the leadership by suggesting he will take the United Kingdom out of the EU, deal or no deal, on 31 October highlights the risks of a long contest.
But that it is a short one gives him less time to make mistakes – and increases his hopes of getting the top job.Getty
The former foreign secretary’s words are a challenge to Conservative moderates.
Boris Johnson has set out his stall on Brexit and it’s bad news for moderate Tories.
Speaking at a conference in Switzerland shortly after May's resignation, he said that “a new leader will have the opportunity to do things differently and have the momentum of a new administration. We will leave the EU on October 31, deal or no deal. The way to get a good deal is to prepare for a no deal.”
His words suggest that should he succeed May, he’ll go back to the European Union and try to renegotiate the deal, but that if he fails to get a satisfactory outcome, he won’t seek another extension and instead press ahead with a no deal Brexit.
It’s a challenge to the group of 60 or so moderate One Nation Conservatives – led by Amber Rudd and Damian Green – who’ve taken it upon themselves to prevent no deal.
Many of them are resigned to the prospect of Johnson becoming prime minister. Particularly in the event of a run-off between the two frontliners, Johnson and Dominic Raab, they’re expected to back Johnson as he’s seen as likelier to compromise than Raab, who is a hardliner. In Johnson they see potential for liberalism and modernisation, dating back to his days as mayor of London.
For his part, Johnson has opened his arms to the One Nation group, tweeting that he shared all their principles and beliefs: “One Nation values have never been more important.” Prominent moderates were hopeful of trading their support for senior cabinet jobs and a Brexit compromise.
But now, Johnson’s made it clear that he has no qualms about pursuing a no-deal Brexit – a position that will no doubt make him yet more popular with the party membership. It's effectively a challenge to One Nation Tories: “stop me if you can”.Photo: Getty
The “Brexit Prime Minister” who failed to deliver Brexit will be remembered for her attempts to reduce immigration and her confrontations with the police.
In the distant summer of 2016, when Theresa May entered Downing Street, she aspired to be a transformative Prime Minister in the mould of Margaret Thatcher and Clement Attlee. Britain’s economy and society, she vowed, would be renewed and its “burning injustices” rectified.
But the epic task of seeking to withdraw the UK from the European Union meant May was always fated to be “the Brexit Prime Minister”. Yet even that goal eluded her.
History will remember May for little. But the policies she enacted, both during her six years at the Home Office (2010-16) and her three years at No 10, were far from inconsequential.Immigration restrictions and the “hostile environment”
If one aim has defined May’s political career it is her desire to dramatically reduce immigration to the UK. As home secretary, and then as Prime Minister, she championed the target of cutting net migration to “tens of thousands” a year. Though this goal was never met, May placed severe restrictions on non-EU migrants, including international students (a group she consistently refused to remove from the net immigration target).
This included the creation of a “hostile environment” for immigrants, a policy that May defined as “deport first and hear appeals later”, and that required landlords, employers and public services to carry out onerous identity checks. “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest,” declared the notorious advertising vans introduced in 2013, which were withdrawn several months later following public outcry.
After May became Prime Minister, the policy returned to haunt her in the form of the Windrush scandal, which saw long-standing residents wrongly detained, denied employment and healthcare and even deported. But it was May’s successor as home secretary, Amber Rudd, who was ultimately forced to resign over the affair after falsely claiming that no deportation targets were set.Police cuts and reform
As home secretary, May endured a more combative relationship with the police than any recent predecessor. Police spending was cut by 20 per cent, as part of the government’s austerity programme, and officer numbers fell by 19,000.
Once more, May’s past stalked her premiership, which saw a sharp rise in knife crime and multiple terrorist attacks. On 20 May 2015, as Police Federation members warned May of the effects of cuts, the future PM defiantly told the body to stop “scaremongering” and “crying wolf”, an approach Labour was able to exploit during the fateful 2017 general election.
May, however, was praised by liberals for her 2014 address to the federation in which she declared: “When you remember the list of recent revelations about police misconduct, it is not enough to mouth platitudes about ‘a few bad apples’. The problem might lie with a minority of officers, but it is still a significant problem, and a problem that needs to be addressed ... according to one survey carried out recently, only 42 per cent of black people from a Caribbean background trust the police. That is simply not sustainable.”
As home secretary, May created a new offence of police corruption and reduced the use of stop-and-search, a policy Conservative rivals would later blame for rising crime (though studies have found no evidence of a significant connection).Higher NHS spending but no end to austerity
One of the few significant policies that May announced as Prime Minister was a £20bn increase in NHS spending by 2023, to mark the health service’s 70th anniversary. Though the headline figure sounded impressive, in reality it amounted to an increase of 3.4 per cent a year, below the historic average of 4 per cent, and did not compensate for the preceding eight years of austerity (when spending rose by an average of just 1.3 per cent). Meanwhile, spending on public health continued to fall and social care remained starved of adequate resources (a long-promised green paper never materialised).
As Prime Minister, May moderated but did not abandon austerity. Though the 1 per cent public sector pay cap was lifted, almost all government departments continued to endure real-terms spending cuts and policies such as the cap on benefit increases remained.
In her resignation speech, May declared: “we are bringing an end to austerity”. But it will fall to her successor to determine whether the era of cuts is finally ended in the forthcoming spending review.Housing: failed expectations and the spectre of Grenfell
May spoke often of her desire to dramatically increase housebuilding, which had fallen to its lowest level since the 1920s under David Cameron. But her rhetoric failed to match reality. In 2018, just 165,090 homes were completed, a 1 per cent increase on the previous year, and far below the 250,000 required to meet demand.
In contrast to Cameron, however, May did remove the cap on councils borrowing to build, and provided state funding for social rented homes for the first time this decade (though just 6,436 were built in the most recent year).
But her premiership was haunted by the spectre of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire. May’s refusal to meet survivors in the wake of the tragedy contrasted starkly with Jeremy Corbyn’s approach, and cast her as a cold, imperious figure. Though May promised to rehouse all residents within three weeks, 17 families remain in hotels or temporary accommodation. And hundreds of towers are still clad with the aluminium composite material used for Grenfell.The policies that never were: “the dementia tax”, fox hunting and grammar schools
As Conservative leader, May was defined as much by the policies she did not implement as by those she did. The 2017 Tory manifesto — one of the most unpopular on record — included pledges to build new grammar schools, to reform social care (immortalised as “the dementia tax”), to hold a vote on ending the fox hunting ban, to end universal free school meals and to means-test Winter Fuel Payments. But after the public responded by depriving the Conservatives of their cherished parliamentary majority, every one of these policies was abandoned.
Though May never abandoned the ambition of Brexit, that, too, was not delivered. “It will be for my successor to seek a way forward that honours the result of the referendum,” the Prime Minister observed, perhaps with some satisfaction. “To succeed, he or she will have to find consensus in parliament where I have not.”
If there is any consolation for May it is that merely changing prime minister will do nothing to alter reality: there is no majority in parliament for any Brexit option.Getty Images
When I asked about her immigration policies, she turned her back.
When I clicked the live link of Theresa May’s resignation, I wasn’t doing so to create a kind of Orwellian two minutes of hate for myself. I was ready to listen. Because like others, I’m still curious to understand what it is that drives this most opaque of politicians. She is a great enigma to me, as she is to others.
But the stream of normal human sympathy that anyone would naturally feel when watching someone having to enact their humiliation in public was suddenly choked off for me when Theresa May invoked the words of Sir Nicholas Winton.
Nicholas Winton. A man who, at a time of great hatred, stood up for humanity. A man who went against the anti-refugee feelings of the 1930s and organised the travel of hundreds of Jewish children from Czechoslovakia to the UK. A man who tried to get more individuals and governments to follow this path of welcome and sanctuary – but was too often ignored.
A man who would not fall for the complacent or hostile rhetoric of the day. A man who could see why you have to stand up for the individual, even when the mouthpieces of borders and security say that it can’t be done. A man who responded to the human being, not their citizenship or lack of it, not their papers or absence of them. He showed a moral certainty that the rest of us can only aspire to, and never compare ourselves with.
Theresa May’s decision to quote him showed me that she was not merely a bit too harsh, or a bit too ignorant, or a bit too clumsy in her approach, she was completely deluded about what she was doing in government.
Because the policy that many of us will actually remember her for, the hostile environment, was all about ensuring that the individual was seen as lesser than their citizenship or lack of it. It was all about denying the full humanity of the migrant and refugee.
Over the last few years, I had tried to challenge some of May’s policies. Back in 2014, I met her at a reception for the Women of the World festival. The charity I work with, Women for Refugee Women, had just published research showing that women seeking asylum are being routinely detained in the UK. These women are almost always survivors of extreme human rights abuses, including rape and torture, and detention in the UK is both incredibly traumatic for them and also completely unnecessary. We were also uncovering scandals about the conditions in Yarl’s Wood detention centre, including sexual abuse and the denial of privacy.
Fair enough, I met May at a reception, not a work meeting. But I was polite in my approach, and rather than haranguing her in the way I might have liked to, I simply laid out what I was concerned about, and asked if we could talk further. I got a few sentences in, and she cut me off, took some steps away from me, and turned her back.
I wrote to her a few more times over the following years, as further evidence amassed about the scandals of immigration detention in the UK. I asked if she would meet with refugee women who had been in detention, and I sent our research papers to her office. Women for Refugee Women also delivered tons of cards from supporters and held occasional protests outside the Home Office. I never got any answer back.
I have engaged with a lot of politicians on this issue over the last few years, some much nicer and cleverer, some stupider and nastier, than one would expect. But Theresa May stands out as somebody who was so uninterested in the real impact of her policies on the individual human being. She was closed to the world, and lived in her own delusions. That was nowhere more apparent than in her resignation speech, when she quoted someone whose life view was so utterly opposed to hers, and laid bare the rift between the May view of the world, and reality.
At the end of May’s speech, her voice broke. There were tears in it. It’s hard to see somebody cry and not want to cry alongside them.
I’ve cried quite often at work over the last nine years. Alongside a trafficked woman who was locked up in Yarl’s Wood detention centre and not released even when she attempted suicide. Alongside a dying refugee woman from the DR Congo, who brought evidence of her terminal illness to her appeal hearing and was still refused asylum. Alongside a refugee woman who was tortured in prison in Ethiopia and then left homeless on the streets of London, where she was sexually assaulted. Women whose humanity had become invisible in the hostile environment.
So I stifled my tears for Theresa May.
Natasha Walter is the founder of Women for Refugee Women, and writes here in a personal capacity.Getty