Theresa May: Something wicked this way comes

Even at this early stage, it feels like Theresa May has the momentum in the Tory leadership race. Michael Gove, the only other serious contender, is launching his bid today, but even as he does so big name MPs are signing up to the home secretary's camp. Even the Daily Mail - which has Gove's wife as a columnist - is throwing its support behind her.

On an electoral level, they're probably wise to do so. Gove seems scheming and pompous, and he comes across as a bit odd in a Miliband-eating-a-bacon-sandwich sort of way. He alienated Tory Remainers by helping to lead Leave, then alienated Tory Leavers by stabbing Boris in the back. This does not make a wise strategy.

May is sturdy, severe, authoritative. She has that stern matronly quality which a part of the British psyche finds attractive, the strong thwack of firm government in times of crisis. We've been here before, you know when with you-know-who. Chaos, and then running to nanny. The similarities are uncanny, except that this time it was the Tories who caused it.

May does have her qualities. She does not the play the parliament game, which has proved such an appalling and dispiriting spectacle over the last few days. She doesn't much like having lunch with journalists and drinking in Commons bars at night. She's cold, uncharismatic, introverted: all things which should disable a political career and which make it doubly impressive that she has come so far. If you asked me to spend a month on a desert island with her or the much more charismatic Johnson, I would choose her without a second’s thought. She may be unsympathetic, but she is genuine and has real convictions.

Some of those convictions are even right. She has a commendable instinctive hatred of closed groups of complacent men, and took on the fire service and the police on that basis. She hates the back-patting mateyness of these organisations, doesn’t care that they despise her for shaking them up, and gets the job done. She is deeply critical of the police and has done more as home secretary to rein them in than any of the Labour home secretaries who preceded her. And she made the right call on Johnson's water cannons, which had no place in British policing and for which no justification could be invented.

But that's where the validity of her convictions ends. In almost all other matters, May is wrong, and not only wrong but cruel.

Her record in the Home Office is appalling. It has been authoritarian, interfering, and inhumane.

Take Isa Muazu, a Nigerian asylum seeker who feared he would be killed by Boko Haram if he was returned to his country. He went on hunger strike for over three months at the decision to deport him and suffered organ failure. Doctors advised that he should not be put on a plane or he could die. May put him on the plane anyway.

Take the income benchmark on spousal visas, which is set at £18,600. May wanted it higher, well out the reach of ordinary workers. Even as it is, nearly half of Brits are affected by the policy. It asks people who have married someone from outside the EU to pick between their country and the person they love. The children separated from one of their parents because of it often end up calling them 'skype mummy' or 'skype daddy', because for years on end that's the only way they see them.

Take the student deportation programme run by May. On the basis of hearsay evidence she deported tens of thousands of students. They were accused of fraud. They were refused their day in court. They had immigration enforcement vans turn up in dawn raids, separate husband from wife, and take them to different detention centres. They kept them there, without any information about when they would be released. A later legal case has seen these people vindicated. It found the evidence the Home Office was relying on was worthless. They had done all this to innocent people.

Take the investigatory powers bill, a piece of legislation would make Vladimir Putin blush. It creates a database of personal information on every British citizen, despite clear Conservative promises to dismantle the database state in opposition. It allows the police and security services extraordinary powers to spy on us. It offers few safeguards whatsoever against this extraordinary overreach of state power.

Take the psychoactive substances bill, in which May outlawed drugs which did not exist, by banning something she could not define, despite plenty of evidence from other countries that this would exacerbate the legal highs problems. And she did this despite a report from her own department showing its already draconian drug policy wasn't working.

The problem with these policies isn't just that they destroy lives and ignore evidence. It is how fundamentally un-British they are. Giving the state the power to separate British citizens from their children because they do not earn enough money is not how we do things in this country. Neither do we convict people without trial on the basis of hearsay evidence, or indefinitely detain them without having committed a crime, or write legislation without being able to define the thing it is we are outlawing.

What made the psychoactive substances bill so dangerous was not the counter-productive effect it would have on use of legal highs, but that it overturned centuries of British legal tradition. Instead of everything being legal until the state specifically banned it, May had introduced Roman law: all is illegal unless the state specifically allows it.

And there is something terribly un-British about the investigatory powers bill, with its creation of a spying and database network eerily reminiscent of east Germany.

These policies aren't just wrong. They're dangerous.

Theresa May is a walking contradiction: the authoritarian who took on the police, the Remainer who would pursue a tougher Brexit deal than the Leavers, the politician who refuses to play the Westminster game. But her chief contradiction is this: she comes across like a British archetype, but would rule like a continental authoritarian.

May has the ability to go all the way. And that should make us very, very afraid.

Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners

 

All the times Michael Gove said he didn't want to be prime minister

Michael Gove today announced his decision to run for the leadership of the Tory party. "I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead," he said. "I have, therefore, decided to put my name forward for the leadership."

And with that, Boris Johnson was toast. MPs fled his ship and at lunchtime he confirmed he would not be running for leader.

But Gove's decision to stand comes after multiple occasions in which he insisted he never would.

Just a few weeks ago, on June 3rd, he told Sky News:

"I can tell you I'm absolutely not. The one thing I can tell you is there are lots of talented people who could be prime minister after David Cameron but count me out."

Just over a month ago, he told the Telegraph:

"I don't want to do it and there are people who are far better equipped than me to do it. And there are people who have advocated Leave and people who have advocated Remain who are far better than me to do it."

Over the years he's told almost anyone who would listen that he wouldn't stand. But what's particularly interesting is that these weren't just flat-out denials - they were very specific. And what he said is going to haunt him.

"I don’t think I have got that exceptional level of ability required to do the job," he told the Telegraph last month. "I don’t have what it takes," he told the Financial Times in 2014. "I am an inconceivable choice as party leader," he told the Sunday Times in 2013.

On Question Time in 2013, he said:

"The one thing I do know having seen David Cameron up close is it takes extraordinary reserves of patience of judgement of character to lead this country and he has it and I don't and I think it's important to recognise in life you’ve reached an appropriate point."

On World at One in 2012, he said:

"There are lots of other folk, including in the Cabinet who could easily be prime minister, I am not one of them. I could not be prime minister, I am not equipped to be prime minister, I don’t want to be prime minister."

The same year, he told Standpoint magazine:

"I'm constitutionally incapable of it. There's a special extra quality you need that is indefinable, and I know I don't have it. There's an equanimity, an impermeability and a courage that you need. There are some things in life you know it's better not to try."

These words must hang over him like a shadow. The question is, what's changed? He clearly didn't believe this would happen earlier this month. If the email from his wife Sarah Vine is genuine, it suggests he wasn't given whatever it was he wanted by Johnson yesterday.

You get the sense there's something we don't know. But we do know one thing. If Gove wins the leadership, he'll never see the end of those quotes. The question he must answer is: if he didn't think he was up to it, why should voters disagree?

Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners

Post-truth politics is driving us mad

Post-truth only recently entered the political lexicon, but the trend it describes has been around for some time. It was there in the build-up to Iraq, or when then-home secretary Alan Johnson sacked the chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, or when George Osborne pursued a deficit reduction strategy identical to the one he'd branded dangerous when it was proposed by Alistair Darling.

Since New Labour, public relations have taken precedence over reality. This new period is just a continuation of that theme, to the point where reality is not just overruled, but made effectively irrelevant. Donald Trump is the obvious example. It simply doesn't matter whether what he says is true or not. He doesn't care, the press don't care and his supporters don't care. It's possible the US electorate doesn't care either. We'll find out in the autumn.

The same happened in the EU referendum. Leavers promised the moon on a stick: less immigration, but also maybe more. All the economic injustices fixed. Less tax, but more spending. Total control over borders and money and other countries and no sense whatsoever that the reality of politics includes compromise and the balancing of competing domestic and international interests.

But that at least was an election campaign. We are used to election campaigns containing promises which we suspect won't be kept. The depressing spectacle of Nigel Farage, Iain Duncan Smith and Daniel Hannan suddenly retreating from promises which had been made was flabbergasting, but ultimately par for the course.

What's more troubling is that the post-reality politics are continuing now we're outside the campaign. Today's Sun demands Boris Johnson follow five principles in his negotiations with the EU.

The most important is demand four: 'We will trade freely in Europe single market'. Membership of the single market means you accept the regulations which govern it and freedom of movement. That's what makes it a free market: regulatory equivalence and freedom of labour as well as capital. So it's strange to find the Sun also demand that 'British laws will trump Brussels edicts' and 'immigration will be on OUR terms'.

On a policy level, it's insane. It's not even the start of a negotiating position. It's really not much more grown up than a child screaming at its parent. And it is deeply shaming to think that European leaders would be looking at proposals like these and wondering whether they even have a negotiating partner who can be addressed on equal terms.

We're turning ourselves into a clown nation. One can't even say that our referendum decision was misjudged but principled. It was based on lies and muddled nonsense like this.

But get past the meaninglessness of the proposals and they highlight a very worrying psychological trend, which has afflicted many leading Brexiters in Westminster and Fleet Street. They seem to have no conception of other people existing. The Sun demand is that we get all the benefits of the single market system without the costs (these are perceived costs by the way - freedom of movement is actually essential to our economy, but there's no point going into that here). It’s like going into a shop and demanding all the things in it but refusing to pay.

Brexiters are exhibiting the same level of psychological development as a stubborn child. And that type of mentality is visible everywhere, in the constant angry shouts that we can do what we like, we don't need foreigners ordering us about anymore, in the vague appeal to we're-British-we'll-be-fine we saw used as the response to every question raised by Remainers.

This is not a sign of strength. It's a sign of weakness. Strong countries do not pretend to have powers beyond those they have, they do not retreat into cocoons in which they are the only pertinent humans living on the planet. This is a fantasy for people who are terrified, not an expression of strength from people who are confident. It's gunboat diplomacy with no gunboats.

If this were just restricted to the press, it would be a particularly pernicious example of their standard operating procedure. But the scary part is Johnson does not seem to be adapting to political reality either. His piece for the Telegraph on Monday engaged in exactly the type of irrational bluster the Sun is demanding as a negotiating position today. We'd have the single market and Brits could travel wherever they liked - but there'd be no reciprocal relationship.

His friends (ie: Johnson) have now retreated from that, by which we can conclude that he means the freedom of movement part. And the only way he can do that is by removing us from the single market. That would be the most economically damaging decision ever knowingly taken by a British government. It would be tantamount to actively going against the national interest.

And for what? Because we 'perceive' immigration to be a problem, despite the overwhelming evidence of economic benefits it brings. Because Johnson made promises he never intended to keep in a campaign he never thought he'd win. For that reason we are going to destroy the economy of this country and the quality of life of the people in it.

That's where post-truth politics has got us. We've clearly gone mad.

Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners

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