We will look back on the summer of 2016 as one of the most tumultuous periods for British politics since the second world war. Alongside the economic, constitutional and social uncertainty the Brexit vote unleashed, its political shockwaves continue to reverberate.
First, David Cameron resigned. Michael Gove then stabbed Boris Johnson in the back in the Tory leadership race, and Andrea Leadsom pulled out. The Leavers have shown themselves to be quitters. Less than three weeks after the referendum, Theresa May emerged as the one candidate left standing and is Britain’s new prime minister.
On Wednesday night, May stood outside Downing Street and paid tribute to her predecessor, saying that she planned to lead a one nation government. But she went further than Cameron ever did. Addressing voters directly, May stated, ‘The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few but by yours.’ In words that could have been written by Ed Miliband, she said, ‘we believe in a union … between all of our citizens – every one of us – whoever we are and wherever we’re from.’ May is unafraid to portray herself as a one nation Tory prime minister who will make the fight against inequality her central mission.
To date, we could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. May has a chequered record in government: in charge at the Home Office when the infamous ‘go home’ vans targeting illegal overstayers hit Britain’s streets, during the passport fiasco of summer 2014, and when Disclosure and Barring Service delays spiked, crippling businesses. In opposition, she voted against same-sex adoption, against the smoking ban, and against equalising the age of consent. There are also big question marks over her role in the campaign that the government waged against Sadiq Khan, as she signed a letter saying that London would be less safe with Khan as mayor.
Yes, May backed a Remain vote in the European Union referendum. But she was the invisible woman of the campaign. Given that immigration was Remain’s achilles heel, interventions from the home secretary could have helped neutralise the issue. It is not implausible that she sat out the campaign to avoid alienating the Tory faithful ahead of a leadership battle.
The keys to No 10 are May’s prize after Cameron’s terrible EU gamble. But at what cost? Her energies will be focused on trying to lead a Tory party split down the middle between Leave and Remain. May will be leading a Vote Leave government. While the three Brexiteers, Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox, have been handed responsibility for delivering the disastrous referendum result they wanted, leaving the EU will consume all of the government’s energy for the foreseeable future.
May famously warned her party that it gets called the ‘nasty party’ in her 2002 party conference speech, setting the stage for party modernisation. It is clear that she sees her premiership as the conclusion of that journey. Whether, with our EU exit approaching, a divided party, and a wafer-thin majority in parliament, she will be able to be achieve that ambitious one nation goal is yet to be seen. But May has planted her flag in the centre-ground, the territory on which elections are won. We in the Labour party have a duty not only to scrutinise her new government, but to elect a new leader who can unite our party and help us put our principles into action by getting back into power. It is going to be another long summer …
Mary Creagh MP is a former member of the shadow cabinet. She tweets @MaryCreaghMP
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