For the past four years or so, Theresa May has cultivated the reputation of being “The Quiet Woman” of Tory politics. She was seen as a pragmatic and unfussy politician who gets things done. But the recent row with the education secretary Michael Gove about Islamic radicalisation in Birmingham schools showed a side of her that Conservative backbenchers and party supporters consider less forgiving.
Conducting her feud in public, Theresa May committed one of the cardinal sins of politics: she was perceived as disloyal, with little regard for her party’s reputation. Some also saw her reaction as a demonstration of her ambition to topple David Cameron if the Conservatives lose next year’s general elections. It’s no surprise that the current conventional wisdom in Westminster says that this episode has almost fatally wounded her ambitions.
But has this row really damaged Theresa May’s chances of becoming the leader of the Conservative Party? To believe so is to assume that her main rivals are flawless, adored by the party and the media and popular with voters. The only person who more or less fits that bill is London Mayor Boris Johnson, but he has problems of his own. His reputation as the kind of party maverick the Tory right likes so much is not necessarily an asset for a future prime minister. As for George Osborne, he may have his fan club in the cabinet and in some sections of the backbenches but he is not universally popular. In fact, the right of the party does not trust him. His social liberalism makes him a fee-paying member of the despised Notting Hill set. He is also perceived, in the words of a government minister, as “a bit of a snob”.
The feud with Gove did not endear May to her conservative backbenchers but it did not reveal anything they did not know already. Indeed, even before the row broke out, many Conservative MPs had reservations about May. According to her critics, she has no interpersonal skills and has made the mistake of not cultivating a coterie of supporters. As a result she finds herself isolated in cabinet and few are ready to act as her cheerleader in the backbenches. But her biggest problem is her hinterland (or lack of). She is seen as a doer but not as someone who has a vision for the party.
But it is precisely her competence, pragmatism and no-nonsense attitude that has won her many admirers in the party and in the press over the years. Her longevity at the Home Office, the Whitehall department known as the graveyard of many political careers, has surprised many.
This is not the result of luck but of hard work and determination. Home Office officials say she works her brief diligently, reading every piece of paper that goes through her red boxes and going to extreme lengths to ensure that her aims are achieved. This working method is behind some of her successes, namely the extraditions of the radical clerics Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada. In the case of Abu Qatada she personally travelled to Jordan to negotiate the conditions of his extradition.
Theresa May has also managed to carve up a niche for her style of politics. She offers a blend of pragmatic social liberalism with true blue politics. She shows her pragmatic social liberalism in her championing of greater gender parity in Conservative politics, in the reforms of the controversial practice of stop and search, in the sensitive way in which she deals with the Muslim community on questions of radicalisation, or even when she admits to having changed her mind about adoption rights for homosexual couples. But she is able to reassure the Tory grass roots by pursuing the goal of reducing immigration and fighting terrorism with ideological zeal.
Like Margaret Thatcher before her, she has also gained the reputation of being gutsy. When last month she told the Police Federation that they had to “face up to reality” and accept change she had right-wing and left-wing commentators at her feet. Whilst Fraser Nelson called her “the tiger woman who ripped her enemies to shreds” Martin Kettle said she was “one of the most radical and effective police reformers to have occupied the home secretary’s chair in at least half a century”. Conservative backbenchers were equally impressed. According to a poll by the ConservativeHome website collated a few days after this speech, Theresa May was the in pole position to become the next conservative party leader.
For all these reasons, Theresa May should not be ruled out. In a year’s time, this row will be forgotten and, if the Conservatives lose the 2015 general election, the party may find that a pragmatic but gutsy captain is their best chance to navigate the choppy waters of opposition.