So some 26 years after Tory MPs defenestrated our last female Prime Minister, they have ensured that the next PM will be the UK’s second female one. And what great options they have given the Tory Party membership. One candidate says look at my experience, just ignore the failure to control immigration, the racist “go home” vans and the fact I called you the nasty party. The other candidate says look at my stellar career in the City, just ignore the fact that I’ve inflated my importance and haven’t really done much of any note.
Whichever way you look at it, the options Tory Party members are given are flawed. Suddenly David Cameron isn’t looking so bad, after all.
The questions are easier to pose for Andrea Leadsom, the answers harder to come by. A relatively junior Minister, she has served as the City Minister and the Energy Minister. Indeed, one local newspaper reporter thought she was still the City Minister when dismissing her chances of getting on the ballot just a week ago. She has not served as a Cabinet Minister, and to my knowledge has never attended a Cabinet Meeting. She has very little experience of Government. She is on the ballot for one reason only – she gave some barnstorming speeches in favour of remain, and she isn’t Michael Gove.
The questions are a lot harder for Theresa May, and the answers perhaps easier to come by. A highly experienced senior politician, Mrs May has served as Home Secretary, usually the graveyard of a political career, without huge controversy for the last six years. Previously she was a Shadow Cabinet Minister under David Cameron, Michael Howard, Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague. She can certainly say look at my experience. And yet…
Mrs May’s tenure at the Home Office doesn’t fill one with confidence in her ability to be a great liberal Conservative Prime Minister. She was tasked with reducing immigration to the tens of thousands. The number of people from outside the EU has gone up. She was a part of the Remain campaign for the EU referendum, but was locked in a box after acknowledging that we can’t control immigration from EU countries if we remain in the Single Market. Her time at the Home Office saw racist “Go Home” vans sent out to drive around the streets of London, saw foul and vile abuses at the Yarls Wood Immigration Detention Centre, abuse which is still going on and is still being denied by the Home Office. She has overseen a total collapse of morale in the police, and huge cuts to Border Security, leaving most airports and seaports in the country totally unsecured. You can spend all you like at Heathrow, but when any idiot with a sail boat can ship across from Holland, France or Belgium in relative safety, it is like bolting the front door while leaving the back open.
More concerning are Mrs May’s known positions. She backed scrapping the Human Rights Act 1998 and pulling the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights & Fundamental Freedoms. She has now retracted her view on withdrawal from the ECHR, but she still backs the ludicrous idea of a British Bill of Rights (we’ve already got one, for starters, and why should only British people have rights?).
She tells her local newspaper that one of her priorities would be to hold a free vote on foxhunting, which was of course in the Tory manifesto, but which has just about no support in the UK anymore.
In one of our local newspapers today, the Ipswich MP Ben Gummer makes a timely intervention on immigration, saying much more eloquently than could I, exactly what many liberal Conservatives feel: the careless use of language when debating the level of immigration into this country has allowed racism to rear its despicable head once again.
Yet Mr Gummer backs Mrs May, who told the Tory Party conference that she hadn’t been able to deport an immigrant because of his cat. Not only was that story totally untrue, it was widely reported and it became part of the very folklore that Mr Gummer rightly deplored. On doorsteps across Ipswich, in pubs and clubs, on buses, in taxis, you will hear stories like that replayed again and again. Politicians, especially Home Secretaries and Prime Ministers, have a responsibility not to be casual with the truth. Mrs May was over immigration, and my fear is that she will be again.
It is difficult to know Mrs Leadsom’s views on the Human Rights Act or on immigration. Or anything really. We do know that, unlike Mrs May, she believes that any EU citizen currently living lawfully in the UK should be allowed to remain in the UK once we Brexit. Mrs May wishes not to give that guarantee, instead believing we should use people as bargaining chips to guarantee the rights of British citizens living in the EU – who would, of course, still be able to bring cases under EU law and ECHR law that deporting them because of a decision which they could not participate in would be a breach of their fundamental freedoms.
There have been dangerous calls for the Tory party to expedite the process in order to ensure stable Government quickly. The reason I call these dangerous is because while they stem from supporters of Mrs May (in the main) they risk the electorate backing Mrs Leadsom without any real testing of her views.
The next two months will see both ladies troop around the country, speaking to Tory associations and getting over their view of what the nation should look like. Mrs May will espouse her experience, trying gently to cover over the huge blaring gaffes like those racist go home vans, or the cat story. Mrs Leadsom will put forward, I assume, a vision of optimism about the opportunities afforded by Brexit. She will, I hope, explain where she stands on issues from Human Rights, to Welfare, to Education, to Healthcare. It is unlikely she is vastly different on most of these issues to Mrs May, but it is important that the media and the Tory Party members who get to speak to her really push her on where she stands, rather than concentrating on minutiae like her CV. After all, come September 2nd, she might be sitting down with HM The Queen and being appointed Prime Minister.
Whoever wins, the unknown or the unlikeable, it is likely that the nation will be radically different come May 2020, not just different to how it is now, but also different to how it would have been had David Cameron remained in that top job for as long as he wanted to.
Let the best woman win.