She told untruths to win the job and now she is doing the same to make us believe that she is acting in our interest
Theresa May appeals to a stereotype that has a deep grip on the English psyche. Sober and commonsensical, she behaves with the moral seriousness we expect from a vicar’s daughter. She may be a little clunky, but what a relief it is to have a straightforward leader from the heart of the country after the flash, poll-driven phonies of the past.
I am not saying her public image is all a pretence. No focus group told her to campaign against the modern slave trade when she was home secretary. There were few Tory votes in stopping the police targeting young black men, either. But the dominant side of Theresa May is more superficial than David Cameron and more dishonest than Tony Blair. It is a tribute to the power of cliches to stop us seeing what is in front of our noses, that so few have noticed that the only reason she’s prime minister is that she put ambition before principle.
Last week, Downing Street spin doctors were trying and failing to downplay the importance of a secret speech she gave to Goldman Sachs on 26 May, which was leaked to Nick Hopkins and Rowena Mason of the Guardian. In private, May was unequivocal. “The economic arguments are clear,” she told the bankers. Companies would leave the UK if the UK left the EU. In public, however, she made just one speech during the referendum campaign. You forgot it the moment you heard it. May never mentioned the danger of companies fleeing. Her economic case, such as it was, came down to a flaccid, pseudo-impartial argument that “there are risks in staying as well as leaving”.
As an orator, May was hopeless. As a politician on the make, she was close to perfect. When Craig Oliver, Cameron’s former chief of communications, wondered if she was secretly an “enemy agent” for the Leave side, he was being too Machiavellian. May was just making the smart move. She kept her views about the economic consequences of Brexit quiet, so that the Conservative right would accept her as leader if Cameron lost.
Failing to state your honest opinion on the most important decision Britain has taken in decades may seem cowardly enough. But the consequences of May’s pretence do not stop with one referendum.
Her manoeuvres have forced her into a position where she must make arguments she cannot possibly believe, on behalf of causes she cannot possibly believe in. Her behaviour shows that, far from “taking back control”, Brexit is depriving us of the ability to take decisions, giving privileges to the special interests the Leave campaign claimed it was fighting against, and imposing burdens on the taxpayer far greater than the mythical £350 million a week that Vote Leave said we sent to Brussels.