When David Cameron finishes his speech at the Conservative conference in Manchester today, he will look down at his cabinet ministers as they clap and smile, and he will know that many of them now picture themselves in his place.
The Prime Minister fired the starting gun on the race to succeed to him when he declared some months ago that he wouldn’t stick around to fight the 2020 election. Ever since that moment, ambitious ministers have moderated or altered their behaviour with an eye on a race that they know will come, even if they don’t know the timetable.
For some, this has meant the beginning of a process to widen their appeal. The chancellor, for example, has embarked on a carefully crafted public relations exercise designed to present himself as more than just a deficit cutter.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson used the Tory conference stage to remind the party faithful that he still sees himself as a credible contender. The mayor’s speech was a mixture of his usual bombast blended with a serious message on social justice. This was no ordinary backbench MP taking to the stage.
Then came the turn of the home secretary, Theresa May. Her message was a simple one: immigration is bad, and it must be slashed. Society, she warned us, would crumble if action wasn’t taken. No prizes for guessing who she thinks is best placed to lead this vital endeavour.
Those watching the speech who already share a bit of the Ukip view of the world would have cheered her on. Those who don’t share such opinions would have been horrified.
It was a mean, pessimistic and borderline sinister speech designed to appeal to the right of her party and few others. It is likely to have alienated the liberal wing, the business community, the young, probably most of London and a good amount of the swing voters that other Tories have spent the last few days trying to charm.
It will jar with anyone who recognises that Britain’s immigration experiment has been a tremendously successful one.
This was Theresa May’s marker in the sand, and it marks the spot where divisive rhetoric rides roughshod over the facts about the economic and social benefits of immigration.