Unlike Britain’s first woman prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who famously declared ‘The lady’s not for turning’, Theresa May seems rather adept at U-turns. The UK’s second woman prime minister pledged five times during her first nine months in office that there was no question of a snap election. But when she saw an opportunity to crush Labour and win possibly the biggest Tory majority since the 1930s, she was unable to resist.
In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn, the opposition Labour party leader, does not appear to have U-turned on anything since the early 1970s. Unfortunately, rigid consistency and stubborn inflexibility are usually the hallmarks of a weak not a strong leader.
Just as May changed her mind about a general election, she is leaving plenty of room for manoeuvre over what she wants from Britain’s exit from the European Union. She is remaining studiously ambivalent with utterances such as ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and ‘We are going to go into a negotiation and a negotiation is a negotiation’.
Once she is back in power with her own mandate after the election, it is reasonable to ask whether policy reversals can be expected. This should not be ruled out as the government and the country gain a clearer understanding of the impact of amputating the British economy, the City and foreign direct investors from Europe.
May probably does not know the answer but, given her record, whatever she is saying or doing today may not be what she is saying or doing in a year or two.
She has always been open to a change of heart. In a speech in April last year, she gave an eloquent defence of EU membership but said that Britain should leave the European Convention on Human Rights. She now wants to leave the EU, based on the result of the UK referendum last June, but stay in the ECHR. The ECHR and the Council of Europe, which supports it, were Winston Churchill’s principal creations after 1945. Ahead of the election on 8 June, even anti-Brussels voters would draw a line at burying Churchill’s biggest post-war achievement.
As home secretary, May had second thoughts too. In 2013 she used adverts on the side of vans to tell illegal migrants ‘Go home or face arrest’. The week-long pilot scheme was widely derided, its advert banned by the Advertising Standards Authority, and May announced that the campaign would not be repeated.
Some of her illiberal views have also been dropped: she voted in 1998 against equalising the age of consent for heterosexual and homosexual men and women; in 2000, she opposed the repeal of the Section 28 law that made it a crime to discuss homosexuality in schools; in 2001 and 2002, she voted against gay couples jointly adopting children. But by 2013 she was voting in favour of allowing same sex couples to marry, and there is not a hint of homophobia in her government or in any utterances from No 10.
Two years ago, during the 2015 general election campaign, she joined David Cameron, then Conservative leader, in scorning a proposal from Ed Miliband, then Labour’s leader, to freeze electricity and gas prices. No wonder her pledge earlier this month that she would cap energy prices has a familiar ring to it.
The economist John Maynard Keynes said, ‘When the facts change. I change my mind.’ In this aspect of his thinking at least, he now has a devoted follower in No 10.
Denis MacShane, a former UK Labour Minister for Europe, is Vice-President of the German-British Forum, a Senior Adviser at Avisa Partners, Brussels, and a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board. His book, Brexit: How Britain Left Europe, is published by IB Tauris.