Allegra Stratton is Political Editor of the BBC's Newsnight programme and was formerly Political Correspondent for the Guardian
When Theresa May first became Home Secretary in May 2010, everything seemed perfectly straightforward. Apart from the phone in the corner of her room that would only ring, she was told, on matters of top security. Time went by, and eventually it did ring – the caller wanted to order a pizza.
May tells this story to take some of the fizz out of the aura of espionage that bedevils her department. There really isn’t a great deal of intrigue, she will tell you, despite the fact that the department is a graveyard for the careers of so many of her predecessors (six Labour politicians in 13 years). Instead, she implies that hers is a straight-forward, if rather lonely, job. May talks of sitting up into the wee hours of the morning reading sensitive security briefs, with no advisers to call upon, as security clearance is available only to the Home Secretary. It is then that she makes decisions about security operations, and about which Islamist scholars to let into the country.
Lonely but straightforward could also describe her approach to the brief, and to the furrow she ploughs in politics. Forget about the shoes: she is not, and never has been, a flashy performer, and nor has she ever been a networker. When Cameron gave her one of the four great offices of state, Tory eyebrows rose. No one expected her to get the job.
May has managerial acumen – she entered the Home Office determined to improve morale in the department that had famously been labelled “not fit for purpose” by former Home Secretary John Reid. She also displays remarkable insight: it was May who coined one of the most memorable critiques of her own party, when she said members had to ask why it was thought of as “the nasty party”. It should be no surprise she got one of the big jobs.
Her disposition also helps explain why she is the senior government figure to emerge from the phone-hacking scandal untouched and possibly enhanced. One respected blogger wrote: “The whole government (with the exception of the increasingly magnificent Theresa May!) looks rather jaded.” May doesn’t brief or plot and used to perplex colleagues by supping in the twilight evenings in Westminster with her husband when her peers would be diligently dining with the less well-known backbencher or sympathetic cabinet colleague, building their fan base. But that’s not Theresa’s style. Equally she is not clubbable with newspaper priorities and is no News International crony. She will meet editors and journalists, certainly, but no whispered secrets shared at midnight over port.
It is this that means she bested Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper in the Commons debate on phone hacking and the police. Cooper was trying to build a picture of a power nexus between the government, police and News International. May was able to completely rubbish this idea. And everyone knew that, in her case, it was true.
Home Secretary is a particularly critical and political role for the Conservatives in coalition. The Home Office is the Mid-Atlantic Ridge of the coalition – where the two plates of the two parties are most clearly drifting apart, throwing up volcanoes in their wake. One issue for May stems from the fact that lots of Nick Clegg’s staff, and Clegg himself, have worked on the Home Affairs brief, and so fancy themselves as experts. Her department is also home to a slew of values issues – multiculturalism, civil liberties, equalities – that inflame passions far more than the technocratic questions of deficit-cutting. Because of this, Cameron and Osborne consider May central to the task of reminding their voters what they have gained from being part of a coalition government.
Police reform and immigration control
Within this rubric, May has two overt imperatives: reforming the police and controlling immigration. She is intent on getting the election of police commissioners through parliament, because from the Tory perspective the police force remains the last unreformed public service. Lib Dem peers voted against this, and May stood up in parliament to defend her position and dismiss their concerns. It is far from certain that police commissioners will become law, and it’s now incumbent on the government to overrule the Lords, or to offer concessions to an upper house that seems unlikely to be swayed.
The desire for elected police chiefs also fits with the wider Conservative commitment to localism. May believes that if people elect a local figure, there will be a loop of positive feedback. The elected figure will have to deliver a fall in crime figures or at least show responsiveness to an area’s concerns in order to keep their job. The Tories feel that central government can’t solve local crime problems just as strongly as they feel that central government shouldn’t be held to account in other areas of public service.
In the wake of both the centripetal phone-hacking and rioting scandals, which sucked the police into them, the Tories – and May – now believe they have an argument in favour of this most cherished of their policies. When making his statement on corruption and complicity in the police force in the last week of the parliamentary term, Cameron name-checked the electing of police chiefs as a way to improve trust in the force.
Time runs fast and May and her team have to make their minds up soon if they are to see commissioners elected by next May. Despite it helping their argument, the phone-hacking and rioting scandals have taken hands off the pump and it may mean the government has no choice but to delay the whole thing by a year. May also remains committed to cutting police numbers, a high-risk strategy at a time of economic uncertainty, when crime could soar, and following the worst riots in England since the 1980s. Labour strategists think the cuts in police numbers are so out of sync with the British public (they have polling numbers on this) that it could end up being the coalition’s 10p tax (the reform introduced by Gordon Brown that spectacularly misread the public mood).
In terms of controlling the immigration numbers, May is pushing ahead despite opposition from both sides of the coalition, including Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, and David Willetts, the Universities Minister. Immigration is a priority for May because polls frequently show that it is something the public wants government to remedy, and her guiding principle is to listen to the centre-ground of public opinion.
It’s also worth noting that both police reform and immigration are emotive issues that May’s department can actually do something about. For so much of the rest of the brief – terrorism, for instance – she is largely at the mercy of forces she can try to contain but which may ultimately outwit her. These already tricky areas might get more thorny yet, because the Lib Dems are likely to become more assertive. When they do, the Home Office will be their chosen locus for disputes. On her side May has considerable prime ministerial support, although this has possibly been affected by the second crisis of the summer: the August riots.
Response to the riots
During the riots, some of the sheen came off May. She was thought to have offered a hesitant response: but then so did many politicians. She did win one of the main tussles – namely whether an American should be allowed to be appointed to the top Metropolitan police force role. May held out against LA ‘supercop’ Bill Bratton being appointed. But she did so in the face of her patron, Cameron, who was keen on Bratton, and against many of the grass roots activists that had hitherto championed her. Her reasoning was that the post was an important British role that should he held by a Briton. But for the first time it brought her into open confrontation with Cameron and the Tory base. Whether this was a principled streak of independence or a foolish frustration of the Prime Minister’s will is currently unclear.
Whilst she clearly has some considerable challenges to face, May still remains a linchpin for the Conservatives in coalition. For those who run ‘Cameron under the bus’ simulations, it is not inconceivable that May could emerge as the consensus candidate to replace the Prime Minister when he departs. Theresa May, however, isn’t holding her breath waiting for that telephone to ring either. Instead, she’s focused on the job at hand.
Theresa May started her political career stuffing envelopes at her local Conservative Association. She was elected as MP for Maidenhead in May 1997 and has held several positions within Parliament since then. She was a member of the Shadow Cabinet from 1999 to 2010, including becoming the first female Chairman of the Conservative Party (2002-2003). After the general election in May 2010, she was appointed Home Secretary and Minister for Women & Equalities.