WHEN Theresa May spoke at the Conservative Party conference 12 years ago, she made headlines for two reasons – one important and the other utterly trivial.
The important thing was that May, then Tory chairwoman, used her speech to warn members that theirs was considered the nasty party and that if they had any desire to govern again, they might want to think about that.
This was something that very much needed saying. That the Tories didn’t listen and went on the following year to elect as their leader Michael Howard is hardly May’s fault. At least she tried to warn them.
The trivial thing was that May wore shoes with a kitten heel. Even allowing for the fact that the success in 2002 of the sitcom Sex and the City meant that 80 per cent of all news was about either shoes or handbags, the media obsession with May’s footwear was proof that the new millennium had not necessarily brought with it a new enlightenment about women in politics.
Since that conference speech, May’s career has soared. After a number of shadow cabinet roles under David Cameron, she was named Home Secretary in the coalition formed following the 2010 general election.
And, after this week, who would bet against her going even further?
On Wednesday, May created a truly extraordinary political moment, one which marks her out a serious contender for still higher office.
The Home Secretary’s speech to the Police Federation, the quasi union for coppers, was simply remarkable.
Usually combative federation members sat in silence as May tore into them. Those who attended might still be wondering what hit them.
May told officers that the government was cutting the flow of public money to the federation before reading out a charge sheet of shameful incidents upon which the police should reflect.
It was time, said the Home Secretary, to think about the deaths of football fans at Hillsborough, about the handling of the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, about the death of newspaper seller Ian Tomlinson during protests in London, and about “plebgate”, the scandal over claims by officers that former Tory chief whip Andrew Mitchell had verbally abused them and which has led to one policeman being jailed and others dismissed for gross misconduct.
Having reflected on these matters, said May, it was up to the police “to show the public that you get it”.
But the flurry of punches didn’t end there. The Home Secretary told the federation that if the organisation did not reform of its own free will then she would see to it that change was imposed by parliament. The message could not have been clearer: thepolice had long given up the right to expect the benefit of the doubt.
May’s speech was impressive for a number of reasons but, most importantly, it was absolutely necessary. Public faith in the police has been badly damaged by scandal after scandal. It has been clear for some time that our worst fears about some officers are well founded.
It is worth seeking out clips of May’s speech online. Her delivery was impeccable. There was steel in her voice as she laid down the law to a group which has, until recently,enjoyed the effusive support of all mainstream politicians, keen to be seen to place the highest priority on matters of law and order.
But May’s appearance at the conference is significant not only because it will lead to change in the organisation (at the very least, the cut in funding guarantees that) but because it reminded us that she is a viable – possibly even the most suitable – candidate to become the next leader of the Conservatives.
Talk of who might one day succeed Cameron focuses largely on two politicians: mayor of London Boris Johnson and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne.
Of course, both of these possibilities make for good stories. There’s Johnson, the flamboyant rogue, in self-imposed semi-exile, just waiting for the moment to strike. And there’s Osborne, so close to the PM yet so ambitious. Couldn’t this be Tony Blair and Gordon Brown all over again? Please?
But May’s is the more compelling story.
Her career has hit potholes, yes. There was a particularly humiliating episode in 2011 when, after claiming in a speech that an illegal immigrant had successfully fought deportation on the grounds that he owned a cat, her cabinet colleague Ken Clarke rounded on her. He offered a bet that this had not happened and dismissed May’s assertion as “laughable and child-like”.
But there have been notable successes.
Where Labour home secretaries had failed, May succeeded in completing the deportation of al-Qaeda linked extremist Abu Qatada. She also won praise for preventing the extradition of Gary McKinnon, a computer hacker with Asperger’s syndrome who is accused of illegally accessing US military and Nasa databases.
In both of these cases, I wouldargue, May caught the public mood, just as she did in front of hundreds of police officers this week.
Cameron is walking through a political minefield. If he successfully gets through the independence campaign, then things might come to an end at next year’s general election. If he wins that, then there’sthe promised 2017 in-out European Union referendum to contend with.
For the foreseeable future, the PM will never be more than a few months from potential political failure.
Inevitably, this will mean more speculation about Johnson and Osborne. But I doubt that either of those men could have delivered the speech that May did this week.
More than a decade ago, May wisely told her party what was wrong with it and, in return, was treated by some as a rather trivial figure.
She is far from that. After this week, there’s a strong case for her being the Tories’ leader-in-waiting. «