The Greasy Pole column from the January 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard
When things are that desperate it is worth trying anything. Which is why the voters swing from one discredited party to another and back again and why they have at times experimented by trying women to lead the government instead of the wearily ineffective men. But then came the real experience of Golda Meir, Angela Merkel, and Maggie Thatcher. And now, there is Theresa May, the first female chair of the Conservative Party and, after holding other lesser roles, Home Secretary – only the second woman to land in what one of its incumbents, Jack Straw, once called a “ministerial graveyard”. The first female to be there was Labour’s Jacqui Smith who will not wish to go down in history as a minister who claimed parliamentary expenses for the cost of her husband watching television pornography.
On that matter, a media-gratifying coincidence revealed that Theresa May’s name is close enough to that of a soft-porn actor, known as Teresa (without the h) May, to cause some embarrassment but Theresa (with the h) brushed it aside by allowing only that, “We do get telephone calls from time to time from people who want to book me to do programmes which are perhaps not about politics . . . She may think it slightly estranged that some people might like to earn their living as a politician”. Indeed. But Teresa (without the h) might think it more than slightly strange that politicians should adopt such a self-justifying attitude on an issue such as pornography when the living which they “earn” relies on established venality with no regard for the suffering of the people they are elected to represent. All this suggests that there is no significant difference between their way of getting a living and hers. Theresa (with the h) May is married to a banker, they live in the lush rural beauty of Berkshire and between them they own two houses worth £1.6 million. She signalled her moving up the Greasy Pole by changing her wear for designer products, notably her shoes; “She is,” rhapsodised her press officer, “the most glamorous woman in the House of Commons”.
“Rising star” was how one journalist assessed her as she emerged onto the Front Bench. Industrious self-publicist Boris Johnson recorded, as an MP, “ . . . the upcoming bête noire as I spotted some months ago … even John Bercow was fulsome”. But the Daily Telegraph was not ecstatic on her elevation to Shadow Secretary for Education and Employment: “…while she is clearly competent she has done little that obviously merits so swift an ascent”. And now there is some cause to question whether she and her pretty shoes and pricey dresses have not persuaded her to overreach her political safety zone. For since she attained the heights of the Home Office she has been linked – to put it mildly – to enough blunders, misjudgements and clumsy handling of delicate issues to suggest that she is a serious candidate as a victim of Cameron’s first reshuffle. If that happens there will be much referring back to her speech to the Tory conference in 2002 when she suggested to the constituency members that their electoral failure could be something to do with the fact that the voters saw them as “the nasty party”. That was a phrase which has become attached to her very name regardless of the fact that a party which tries to be “nice” will not survive very long its exposure as politically useless to the requirements of capitalism.
As Jack Straw and not a few others quickly found out, the Home Office is no place for impulsive, ill-informed decision-taking. In these terms, Theresa May has not succeeded where others have failed. Rather, there is some evidence that when in difficulty she tends to bend the truth and shovel responsibility onto others. Last October she spoke at the Conservative Party conference on one of her favourite obsessions – abolishing the Human Rights Act. What she said went down very well with her audience for she gave an example of an illegal immigrant who came from Bolivia in 2009 and recently won an appeal against a Home Office attempt to deport him “…because – and I am not making this up – he had a pet cat”. This was eagerly accepted by the assembled Tories, and the headline-writers got busy. There was, however, a drawback. The Royal Courts of Justice, which had allowed the appeal, stated that the grounds were that the man was in a stable, genuine family relationship with a British woman and the cat was not material in the case but only one of the pieces of evidence. To make it worse for May, the case did not involve the Human Rights Act; the appeal succeeded on the grounds that the attempt to deport the man contradicted an established Home Office policy. There was more embarrassment for May when Lord Chancellor Kenneth Clarke weighed in with his opinion that her speech was “laughable and childlike”. All in all, not a good day at the Home Office for her.
And that was not the end of it. Another crisis was the policy of temporarily suspending immigration checks at airports when they are under pressure. News about this was seen likely to encourage a vengeful neurosis among the voters who feared the country being invaded by welfare-seeking cat-owners from places like Bolivia and suicide bombers ready fitted up with their devices. On the hook over this, May tried to pass her responsibility in the Commons and at the Home Affairs Select Committee, onto unauthorised decisions by the man in charge, one Brodie Clark – who denied May’s accusation and, taking such pride in his 40-year record as a civil servant, resigned his job, had his say to that same committee and announced that he would be taking out an action for constructive dismissal. The matter has yet to be resolved.
The Home Office was once described by a Home Secretary as “not fit for purpose”. He got it partly right, except that it is not just a ministry or a government with that problem. The society outside the ministry’s doors is constructed and conditioned to operate against the interests of the majority of its people, while those who attain positions of power soon learn to develop the techniques of passing the buck – onto other people or onto details such as the gender of those rulers. If we are to deal with all aspects of social dislocation it is necessary to begin from a more sustainable basis.