What do we really know of the tight-lipped prime minister about to sweep all before her for the next five long years? Very little. No debates, no scrutiny, avoiding encounters with press and public, we have only her repetitive mantras buzzing like wasps on the eardrum.
That’s the plan. Keep her under wraps for six weeks and let no one penetrate beyond the steely countenance that looks so formidably “strong and stable” in well-managed imagery. What are they afraid of? What might be revealed? Possibly that behind the picture of the distant headteacher in her study there lurks considerably less, a certain vacancy, a lack of political ideas, language or imagination once she departs from stock phrases and scripted speeches. Just not a lot there.
No one doubted Margaret Thatcher’s formidable brain, nor her political astuteness and agility. She talked iron lady not-for-turning, but she ducked and dived when she faced immutable evidence she was on a dangerous tack. Until the mad hubris of power overwhelmed her, as it does most long-time leaders, she had the wit to pick her battles.
But what if May starts out brimming with hubris and inflexible obstinacy? “Strong and stable” may be nothing more than rigid, blinkered and narrow-minded.
So far she hasn’t done much for us to judge her on, though her dogmatic approach to all things Brexit make us fear the worst. Her scripted words on the Downing Street threshold warmly embraced “everyone”, “the many not the privileged few” and so on, though her first budget marched in diametrically the opposite direction. As with David Cameron, the Tories find warm words easily taken at face value by many voters.
However, this week one stand-out policy opens a window into her soul. On Wednesday, in rapid “wash-up” negotiations between parties on which current bills can pass before parliament shuts down, there was optimism that a sensible Lords amendment would be accepted by the government in the higher education and research bill. Lord Hannay, former UN ambassador, proposed removing foreign students from the overall count as “immigrants” and that passed in the Lords by a large majority, only one peer speaking against.
This blindingly obvious good sense was supported by many in government: besides it would help meet the fruitless and failed immigration target. The chancellor Philip Hammond made the case, as did both Johnson brothers, Boris foreign secretary and Jo, universities minister, among many ministers wanting to grow not shrink numbers of foreign students. Former Tory minister Lord Patten, chancellor of Oxford University, called the government’s stance “crazy”, Labour’s Baroness Royall called it a “no-brainer”. But the word came down from Downing Street: Theresa May will not hear of it. No, no, no.
Since 2010 May’s Home Office has tightened the tourniquet on student visas. The number of Indians studying here has halved and they turned instead to benefit the US, Canada and Australia. In 2014 the UK was the second most popular destination for international students, after the US. Around 427,000 were studying in the UK, 19% of all UK undergraduates and more postgraduates – bringing in a substantial income for universities. Oxford Economics’ research estimates spending by foreign students adds £25.8bn to the economy, supporting 206,000 jobs.
As Brexit looms, Britain is not exactly brimming with successful exports to replace lost EU trade. If soft power is our strength, educating the world is our great ambassador. India, as a prime target for a new trade deal, will demand more visas in exchange, especially for students. A third of non-EU students come from China, another hope for future trade, but they too are to be rebuffed with a May no.
Official figures for 2016 show 134,000 international students arriving. Consider how many will have to be cut, to meet the impossible target to cut all immigration to below 100,000. In the Home Office, May was rightly tough on bogus students: a few universities lax with checking foreign students were prevented from issuing permits. Bizarrely, she has said her intent is for the UK to take only the “brightest and best” foreign students, though why they must pass a higher bar than our own is unclear. Her chief of staff Nick Timothy is reported in the Financial Times as suggesting only top Russell Group universities should be allowed to take any.
May’s reason for this obduracy is that she has made immigration her hallmark, her priority above the economy, jobs and living standards, marching us out of the single market and customs union as a result, regardless of consequences. Immigration trumps everything she says and she fears being thought to back-slide and cheat by removing students from the total tally. But the public are already ahead of her: they are not stupid. A ComRes poll shows only 24% of people regard foreign students as immigrants and 70% think they should be allowed to stay and use their skills working here after graduating. Resentment of immigrants tends to focus on uneducated, non-English speakers.
This is a character question: her “no means no” means blocking her ears to common sense. She is not a “strong and stable” leader but a craven follower, if she fears she owes her prime ministership to immigration above all else. This bodes ill for her future style of decision-making.