One of Them: Why the "Remainer" Theresa May is winning the Conservative leadership

July 4, 2016
July 4, 2016
UK Politics

British politics in the week and a half following the EU referendum has been dominated by leadership fights in both parties. I have already expressed my belief that the Labour coup against Corbyn was misconceived and mistimed, based on a poor reading of the status of the Conservative leadership race. Nothing that has happened in the last week has done anything but reinforce that view. If anything, it has done more. Namely it has convinced me that the same misconceptions that prompted the coup against Corbyn have also led to a misunderstanding of the dynamics within the Conservative party.

By this I mean that many observers have vastly overestimated the importance of the EU issue in the Conservative leadership race. This is apparent in how many people have expressed incomprehension to me as to why Boris Johnson, the most visible face of the Leave campaign, withdrew from the race suddenly last Thursday. To me, the reason was obvious; he was not going to win. An Eton educated former Mayor of London who was known to be a friend of the media, multiculturalism, and high finance, he was never going to have an easy time winning over a Conservative party which was revolting against David Cameron's excessively cosmopolitan leadership, and nominally leading the campaign to Leave the EU was not going to erase in three months a lifetime association with exactly those groups Leave voters were rebelling against. And any chance it would even mitigate those associations was lost when Johnson appeared to waiver on a future relationship with the EU. Combined with the fact that his visibility with the Leave campaign had annoyed longtime allies, Johnson had managed to alienate everyone. Leavers did not trust him, and Remainers, not to mention the Europeans with whom he would have to deal, blamed his opportunism for what had happened. Facing fire from all sides, Boris chose to bow out of the fight.

This view, well-supported by actual Conservative sources, seems incomprehensible however to many Remainers who having created a monolithic view of the Leave campaign, seem to have internalized the conspiratorial view that it was a scam masterminded by a few opportunistic politicians such as Gove and Johnson. As such, it seem axiomatic that having voted to Leave the EU, these same voters would never accept a candidate to lead the Conservative party who had not backed Brexit themselves. That someone like Theresa May, who backed the Remain side, could not only be leading, but absolutely dominating the race seems inconceivable to them. That Gove himself, along with his wife and others within the Westminster bubble seem to have bought into this viewpoint as well speaks ill of them, not well of the assumptions involved.

The reality is, as has been demonstrated by individual Britons harassing South Asian immigrants with questions regarding "why they are still here" after the vote, the Leave victory was about more than the EU. It was a cultural revolt within the Conservative party(as well as nationally) among those who felt that David Cameron did not share their values. It was a move among Tory voters who, living in English villages, have no great interest in making London an "international city", do not see why having "curry houses" benefits the country, and genuinely do not understand why England is not enough. They voted for Leave, at least partially to get rid of Cameron, and partially because they believed their own political leaders were more interested in the taxes they could squeeze from the territory of England rather than what that England looked like.

The "Cosmopolitan" Leave campaign, represented by those like Michael Gove and Daniel Hannan was always an elite phenomenon, and one whose greatest contribution was to draw the fire of Remainers during the campaign who mistook support for it with actual support for Leave, and therefore assumed that personally damaging Gove or Johnson would somehow undermine support for the Leave side. The reality was that for all they performed a useful service, Gove and Johnson helped to make the entire contest look like an incestuous spat between elites and thereby won over Labour voters to the Leave side, neither ever really culturally connected with the generic Leave voter, who did not live in London, did not have a degree from Oxbridge, and did not spend much time worrying about the markets. If that had been the Leave voter base, then Remain's "Project Fear" would have proven a whole lot more effective. Gove and Johnson then were always defectors. They had defected to the side of the people on one issue, but they were still traitors; traitors to their background, their friends, and their place in society. Having committed betrayal once, they could always do so again.

It was this distrust which was always going to make it challenging for Johnson or Gove to mobilize the sentiment that powered the Leave victory behind either of their leadership bids. Such an effort was invariably going to look so self-serving as to cast the motives behind their entire support for the Leave campaign into doubt. Had Johnson and Gove moved quickly, by claiming victory in the hours after the Leave side had won they might nevertheless have accomplished something in terms of taking control of the movement and the government when no one else seemed interested or capable of doing so, but once that chance slipped it was gone forever. Other forces within the Conservative party mobilized, and many Leave voters themselves began to have second thoughts, not least once Johnson gave them reason to doubt his commitment to Brexit with the lack of seriousness of his proposals. From that point on they were doomed.

They were doomed not only because their own political base was made of clay, but because their foes organized far more effectively. Cameron may have resigned immediately following the vote, but his political organization swept into action almost immediately. In contrast to Johnson and Gove, who presumed that the same peasants who they had persuaded to vote Leave would carry them into office with nary an ounce of effort, Chancellor George Osborne rapidly made a series of difficult decisions. The first was to recognize this own ambitions were finished, at least for the time being. Once he had reached that conclusion, things became quite simple. Accepting that he would not be rounding up votes for himself, Osborne merely had to persuade Tory Mps to back someone other than Johnson. The obvious candidate was the Home Secretary, Theresa May.

May was the obvious candidate, because despite having backed the Remain side, she was far closer to the ID of the average Leave Tory than the Leave campaign's own political leadership. State educated and the daughter of a Vicar, May is deeply conservative in a way the flamboyant Johnson, the idealistic Gove and the cosmopolitan Cameron never could be. While Gove dreamed of a renewed Commonwealth, Daniel Hannen of making the UK a global trading center, and Johnson identified with the fast and dramatic pace of London, May was a creature of the Shires who quite simply wondered why England was not enough. Someone who could be described as never having had an idea in her life, and of being quite proud of that fact, May's major claim to fame at the Home Office has been the jihad she has waged at Non-EU students and other migrants, one that has brought her into conflict with Osborne. As opposed to Gove, for whom the problem with freedom of movement is one of welfare, May is not concerned about the wealth, education, or intentions of migrants, but of their existence itself. Her speech to the Tory conference last fall was a warning that immigration itself undermines social cohesion, and as much as that terrified many of the more "liberal" Leave politicians, it matched the views of many in the membership who voted Leave. Of course they do not think Bulgarians should be able to come to the UK and receive benefits, but they are also  uncomfortable with the number of Brazilian business owners and Asian lawyers. For them, the election of London's first Muslim mayor is not a pane to multiculturalism, but a sign that London is no longer "English".

It is easy to describe that sort of outlook as racist. It is also true in a sense. Equally, however, it is pointless both in terms of political analysis, and in a world that is not normative, and therefore does not conform to liberal comprehensions of right and wrong. Ross Douhat discusses in the New York Times the extent to which "Cosmopolitan" elites have themselves become a tribe, albeit a multiracial, international one. But they are not a universal one, and one of the major issues facing the world at the moment is the question of whether or not all human beings really are interchangeable or whether there is actually value or meaning in national states. To describe someone who believes Germany should be primarily inhabited by Germans, or England by the English as racist is both a truism and one that assumes the truism has inherent meaning. Because the idea that opposition to the principle of internationalism is inherently unacceptable socially is so ingrained among elites, the idea that the case for it has to be made is inconceivable. Much as with global warming, the idea that anyone would dare deny it tends to produce not rebuttal for incomprehension, accusations of conspiracies to propagate falsehoods, and impotent threats of prosecution.

It is perhaps worth reflecting that politically, the elites and the "scientific consensus" have lost on the issue of global warming. Increasingly, not only is it legitimate to question the reality of man-made global warming, but it is almost a prerequisite for success in the American Republican party.

But that is beside the point. What matters is that may has a cultural connection with the membership of the Conservative party on a level that her foes cannot compete with. Gove might promise anything regarding the EU, but his entire career indicates he feels quite comfortable moving in "cosmopolitan" circles and would not be hugely bothered by large scale immigration. By contrast, even though May backed Remaining in the EU, her record makes them believe that she is telling the truth now when she says she will work to end freedom of movement. Why? Because the membership actually believes that May is bothered by the scale of immigration on a personal level in the same way they are, and that hence she would in fact work to reduce it regardless of the political incentives. They do not have to have her promise to leave the EU or to not accept the EFA on "x or y" terms in order to support her, because they know she will do everything in her power to reduce migration as much as possible and if more is not done it is because it cannot be done. By contrast there is no real trust that Gove or Johnson before he withdrew would even particularly try. A "more cannot be done" from might mean that is in fact the case, or may simply be a self-serving lie indicating a lack of interest in the subject.

It is for this reason, that the efforts of May's opponents to use the Referendum issue against her have so far fallen flat. Because political trust occurs on a deeper level, and choices are made comparatively. Few of her major foes have any credibility on the issue, much less her degree. It is no coincidence that the one candidate who appears to be gaining momentum, Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom, is the one with the least record and lowest profile. That in itself has made her the most viable vehicle to be a "generic Leave" candidate. It is also why the stories about Ms. Leadsom's prior views on the EU and migration are so damaging. It is also why May decided to pick a fight over the status of EU citizens resident in the UK, and why Leadsom's almost instinctive decision to take a contrary stand is likely a mistake, albeit perhaps a necessary one. May has made it clear she will value the social and cultural concerns on par with economic ones. Her opponents, even those who backed Brexit, are ironically still playing the Remain game of prioritizing economic considerations above all else, even after seeing how pre-acceptance of free movement helped undermine Johnson.

I do not personally care for Ms. May. As an international student in the UK i have felt the impacts of her policies first hand. I have seen how they have cost the UK tax money by forcing non-EU nationals to commute to Geneva via London city airport in order to work on placements because the paperwork for the Canary Wharf offices is nigh impossible. But I also understand that her views on this issue transcend money or revenue, instead being based upon a vision of a UK which might have less taxes from international bankers, but also less international bankers full-stop. It is because that is what a large portion of the electorate voted for two weeks ago that May has become the woman of the hour, and why her campaign has done so well. It is also why the understanding of the Tory leadership race as one solely about Brexit is a result of the same disconnect among elite observers that led many Remainers to consider a Leave win inconceivable.


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