Theresa May’s Leadership Bid
In 2011, Theresa May told the Conservative Party Conference that the Human Rights Act needed to be restricted. One of the examples she gave of its alleged excesses was an ‘illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because – and I am not making this up – he had a pet cat’. Except she was making it up, or at least grossly exaggerating one small part of a case into its entire rationale. In March 2013, she created another stir by suggesting that the next Tory election manifesto should include a promise to dump the European Court of Human Rights. This forced old school Conservatives such as Kenneth Clarke to defend the Strasbourg body – which was just what she wanted, as it would make them more unpopular with Europhobic Tory voters, while boosting her own Eurosceptic credentials.
May’s speech on Brexit earlier this week needed some xenophobic noise to camouflage her pro-EU stance in the referendum campaign; human rights were once again her target. There were the usual inaccuracies (she called Strasbourg ‘a final appeal court’ when in fact our courts do not need to follow its rulings), rhetorical flights (‘the country of Magna Carta … the fairest courts in the world’) and wild assertions about a British Bill of Rights (amendable by Parliament: some rights charter) protecting ‘trial by jury’ (Really? For everything? Even littering?).
The speech produced the furore the home secretary hoped to provoke: criticism from Amnesty International, Labour and the Lib Dems is always welcome, but what she really wants is to be attacked by fellow Conservatives for being too anti-Europe. The stories about the widening of the Cabinet rift as a result of her speech prove that her job has been well done. Not even Michael Gove wants to ditch the European Court of Human Rights (only the Human Rights Act is in his sights).
When David Cameron said last year that he won’t seek a third term in office, he created a highly unusual political situation. A Conservative prime minister has announced his retirement years in advance, promising to go before the next election, and according to conventional wisdom the Labour Party is unelectable. The Conservative leadership has never before come with such a double prize: immediate incumbency of Number Ten and the near certainty of an election victory shortly afterwards.
The Tories’ process for picking a leader is tricky to negotiate: Conservative MPs narrow the field to two before a postal ballot of the wider membership. George Osborne has probably deployed his parliamentary patronage with sufficient skill to be certain of one of the slots. But whoever fills the other is likely to win, given Osborne’s position on Europe: a substantial majority of party members are in favour of leaving the EU. To get there, though, May has to beat Boris Johnson, whose Brexit play put him ahead among Europe-hating Tory MPs – a large group. It is now for Johnson to raise the stakes. What will he promise?