Today a new, unelected British prime minister rides into 10 Downing Street on the shock waves from the Brexit referendum. Less then three weeks after David Cameron’s resignation, the Tory Party has reassembled itself, in the words of one commentator, “like a cyborg regenerating.” As if on cue, the weaker contenders for the leadership fell away. The Brexit duo of Johnson & Gove imploded in an orgy of mutually assured destruction; Andrea Leadsom (the last Leave candidate standing) was quietly ushered offstage—and Theresa May strode forth as the Unifier.
May kept a strategically low profile during the bitter referendum campaign; many voters didn’t know which side she was on. Cameron’s long-time home secretary is known for her tough views on immigration and asylum. She believes that the numbers coming from Europe are “unsustainable,” and has complained that Europe’s free movement rules allow “anybody who has married a European” to live in Britain. She has said that British participation in search-and-rescue missions for drowning migrants in the Mediterranean constitutes a “pull factor”; her line on a common European immigration and asylum policy is “not in a thousand years.” Three years ago, she piloted a billboard campaign warning illegal immigrants to “go home or face arrest,” and she pushed hard for Britain to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights on the ground that it makes it harder to deport terrorism suspects—a position she rowed back from when she announced her candidacy for the Tory leadership.
But May is no one-dimensional politician. As home secretary, she’s been tough on police corruption, taking on the powerful Police Federation and challenging racial profiling; she supported gay marriage and champions women in politics. She’s serious, thorough, clever, sharp: a no-nonsense Tory matriarch, the keep-calm-and-carry-on candidate even some Labour voters are relieved to see take charge. She voted to Remain but says she’s now committed to Brexit; it’s easy to imagine her sitting down with Angela Merkel—two minister’s daughters—to negotiate terms.
Grasping the deep disaffection behind the Brexit vote, May has also lost no time in parking her tanks on Labour’s lawn. Launching her national campaign for the Tory leadership in Birmingham just a few hours before she won it by default, she promised a Conservative Party “completely, absolutely, unequivocally” at the service of working people. She box-ticked Britain’s less privileged—poor people, black people, white working-class boys, the state educated, women, the young, those with mental-health problems—and hummed the anti-elitist tune of the Leave campaign: “If you’re from an ordinary, working-class family, life is just much harder than many people in politics realise.” And she backed it all up with lines from a series of Labour playbooks. Instead of cuts and austerity, she talked about Treasury bonds for investment in infrastructure, more house building, investment in research. She pledged to protect British firms from foreign asset strippers, to break up monopolies and challenge vested interests; she called for corporate transparency, curbs on executive pay and worker representation on company boards. Two of former Labour leader Ed Miliband’s senior advisers have accused her of plagiarism.
We’ve heard all this, or similar, before, from David Cameron, whose government went on to slash public services, hollow out education, sell off public housing, push the NHS to the wall, and redefine child poverty to conceal its rise. It’s what “compassionate” Tories say to woo the electorate. But in shocked, post-Brexit Britain it has a different ring. Labour is about to embark on a bitter leadership contest that may yet tear it in two. May says she won’t call an election now, but if she did, she’d win it. Cameron lost his referendum gamble, but seems to have got what he wanted from it anyway: the reconstitution of the Tory party, now poised to appear as the natural party of government. When that’s the prize, what price Britain’s place at the European table?
The Brexit referendum has triggered a huge upheaval in British politics, the biggest in my lifetime. The vote to leave the EU was largely a howl of rage from Labour’s abandoned heartlands, devastated by deindustrialisation and decades of neglect. Labour’s long failure to listen and respond lies at the root of its current crisis; that festering anger has now been misframed and expressed through Cameron’s binary question, with disastrous consequences. As of today we have a new prime minister, but no functioning opposition. And nobody has a clue what will happen next.