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

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