JOHN KAMPFNER: Theresa May has always been a virulent Brexiteer

PUBLISHED: 18:00 22 February 2019

Aside from one major speech and a handful of interviews, Theresa May was largely absent from the referendum campaign. Picture: Getty Images

Aside from one major speech and a handful of interviews, Theresa May was largely absent from the referendum campaign. Picture: Getty Images

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Theresa May was never the 'reluctant Remainer' she is portrayed as, says John Kampfner. Her political outlook has always been mean-spirited and insular.

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I did it so you don’t have to. I listened back to an interview that Theresa May gave to the BBC in the middle of the referendum campaign. Even hearing from her, as Laura Kuenssberg put it, was a rarity. Unlike her cabinet colleagues, the then home secretary had disappeared from view for the duration of the campaign.

Throughout the horrors of the past two and a half years I have had a niggling suspicion that we have got May wrong. These fears have increased, the closer she has brought us to a cliff edge and the more she uses the hard right of the Conservative Party as her only reference point.

Perhaps, I wondered out loud at a function last week, she isn’t the ‘reluctant Remainer’ she is portrayed as being. Where have you been all this time, a government minister (you can guess he isn’t an enthusiast) responded? Of course, she is a Leaver, a “fanatical Leaver”, he said. Always has been. To have thought otherwise was wishful thinking.

Back briefly to the 2016 interview. May said that she had been lobbied by both sides but had come down for Remain for three reasons: the economy, security and Britain’s place in the world. “People’s jobs would be put at risk” if we left. We would be “more secure and safer” if we stayed in. As a leading member of the EU, “our future is more secure”.

What mattered were her facial movements.

The only time she became animated was when talking about immigration. The EU, she said, should look at further reform, particularly free movement of people. “What I’ve learned over six years is there’s no single answer, silver bullet, there’s no one thing you can do that can suddenly deal with all the problems and concerns over immigration and that includes leaving the EU, that’s not the single answer to this.”

She stuck by the official Remain script – albeit the toughest “keep out the foreigners” variant – because she expected David Cameron to prevail and wanted to keep on the right side of him and of George Osborne, whom she loathed (the feeling was mutual). She was as surprised as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and the Leave opportunists when they eventually triumphed.

Circumstances, not least the mutual back-stabbing of the more dynamic candidates and Andrea Leadsom’s tasteless barb about childlessness, handed May the leadership on a plate. From that point, she twisted the victory of the 52% as a total victory. The British people, she would declare, had spoken.

Her rhetorical high (or low) point was her speech to the Conservative conference that October. In a passage that spoke eloquently of the bonds and obligations of society, of people watching after each other, she railed against corporate governance. “Today, too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street.”

So far, so mainstream as a critique. Then she unleashed her signature line. “But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”

That passage was blamed on Nick Timothy, one of her two Svengali advisers at the time. But it’s too convenient to blame the adviser. After removing her two aides, May toned down the twitching-behind-the-net-curtains language. That enabled her to be portrayed more generously, even by her opponents.

For sure, people had fun at her expense – her robotic manner, her lack of empathy, her inability to connect with people, her inability to dance. Yet her detractors were forced to concede she was nothing if not dogged. A good egg. When she said it was her job to “deliver” Brexit, people seemed to appreciate her sense of duty.

A part of this is deserved. May’s resilience under fire – the almost daily bombardment of insults in the media and often from her own MPs – remains quite remarkable. Most people would have either cried into their pillows at night (does she? I doubt it) or given up the ghost.

A Teflon 2.0 has been invented. Why has she been so determined to survive? What underneath it all does she want for her country? Is this only about party management, about keeping the Tories together?

During the coalition government Nick Clegg used to say that his regular meetings with May were the ones he looked forward to least. It was like going to the dentist. It wasn’t just the lack of human touch (she went straight into agenda item number one), but it was the coldness in her eyes.

I’ve heard similar accounts from diplomats who have attended talks with her. In Delhi in November 2016 she told prime minister Narendra Modi that Britain was delighted to invite India to work on the first post-Brexit bilateral trade deal – a classic case of 1950s thinking (why would major power India need to be ‘invited’ to work with declining power Britain?). Modi would have none of it. Sort out your immigration policies which are deliberately punitive to Indian students, he said, and then maybe we’ll start a discussion.

May embraces the worst form of mean-spirited insularity. Her vision of Brexit Britain is more depressing than that of more exuberant colleagues like Johnson and Liam Fox. Their approach may be delusional. Fox has had to admit that not a single trade deal which he declared to be super-easy to agree is anywhere close to being signed. Johnson’s faux Churchillian “global Britain” is just one of his childish cobbled-together one-liners. At least, however, these two are driven by a sense of optimism.

May epitomises a mono-linguistic, miserable little island in which we keep Johnny Foreigner at bay, and drink tea after church on a Sunday. That is the goal. How we get there is an issue of detail. Will a variant of her deal prevail, or will we crash out? She would like a deal because she knows it will cause less economic hardship. And she will secure for herself a more charitable historical legacy (something about which all politicians obsess). But if we leave on March 29 or a few months later without an agreement, then so be it. The Blitz spirit will kick in and we’ll muddle through.

She is running down the clock, because the one outcome she is desperate to prevent is any reversal or significant softening of Brexit. It is not just because she knows that could lead to the split in the Conservative Party that has been brewing for decades. She’ll continue to talk to Jeremy Corbyn and anyone else, but only if they can help her deliver.

This new-found attempt at a consensus is a tactic, a ruse which the Labour leader and others are falling for. She believes Brexit will allow the UK to become the country that she wants it to be. For six years she bit her lip under Cameron and Osborne, although she abhorred what she saw as their metropolitan, cosmopolitan swagger. More than that cartoon character Jacob Rees-Mogg; more than Johnson or Gove, she is, and always was, a virulent Brexiteer.

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