Thursday 22 February 2018

May is Britain's Merkel - she should heed her lessons

British Home Secretary Theresa May arrives to attend a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street Photo: Getty Images
British Home Secretary Theresa May arrives to attend a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street Photo: Getty Images

Cathy Newman

Theresa May has a fight on her hands. It's just not the one she thought she was embarking on. Michael Gove's astonishing last-minute bid for the Tory leadership not only torpedoes Boris Johnson's clear run at Number 10, but gives the new favourite, Ms May, a run for her money, too.

The Home Secretary has been telling us a little more about what kind of Prime Minister she would be. It was classic May: authoritative, but entirely unsurprising. This is both her weapon of choice, and the chink in her armour.

Ask anyone at the Dog and Duck what they make of Ms May, and you'll more than likely be met with a blank stare. Were it not for the security that accompanies the Home Secretary's job, she could walk down the street unnoticed. So as Ms May launches her bid for the Conservative leadership, her biggest challenge is that most people can't recall very much about her except her fancy footwear.

When it looked as if Tory members would be choosing between Mr Johnson and Ms May, this sobriety was what might have given her the edge. No matter how much Boris tickled their fancy, did the grassroots really want a celebrity politician at a time when what's needed is a technocrat - someone with a cool head and a sober grasp of the details?

Now Johnson has pulled out of the race, though, they've got that in Mr Gove instead. And if, as seems possible, the final run-off will pitch the Justice Secretary against the Home Secretary, ordinary members may well pick a man who battled for Brexit, rather than a woman who only half-heartedly pitched to Remain.

In response, you'll hear a lot more from Ms May about how she, the state-school-educated girl from Sussex, can unify divided Britain, making it a "country that works for everyone". By contrast with Mr Gove, who proved a highly divisive education secretary, she'll cast herself as a reassuring mother-of-the-nation figure - something like a British Angela 'mutti' Merkel.

Both are children of the cloth - Ms Merkel's father was a Lutheran pastor, Ms May's a Church of England clergyman. Politically, they both hail from the centre right; their brand of politics is pragmatic. And in an age where charisma rules, they're resolutely unshowy.

They're known for their grasp of details, drilling down into policy, unlike some of their male colleagues. And while both like to quietly build consensus, neither is afraid to challenge the status quo: Ms May when she told the Conservatives to quit being the "nasty party", and Ms Merkel when she told her country they couldn't turn their backs on the refugees on Europe's doorstep - a decision that haunts her still.

But both share one character trait that could prove their undoing: caution.

Ms Merkel has discovered the drawbacks of procrastinating during the refugee crisis.

Ms May should learn from Ms Merkel's travails. She needs to prove to friends (who teased her indecision with the quip "Theresa May. Then again she may not") that she can lead - just as she did with her 'nasty party' speech when she forged a path for the modernisers, years before it became fashionable to detoxify the Conservative brand.

Mr Gove showed, when he defied the prime minister to vote for Brexit, and again yesterday, when he betrayed his friend Mr Johnson, that he's a man of conviction.

If Ms May is to have a hope of seizing the crown, she'll have to substitute "may" for "will". If she can do that, 'Mutti May' might be capable of unifying not only her party, but her country too. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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