Theresa May has many qualities, but the most interesting is how quickly she adapts to new realities.
She pledged solemnly five times on the BBC and elsewhere that there was no question of a snap election. She U-turned as the political opportunity presented itself to crush Labour and to win possibly the biggest majority a Tory Prime Minister has obtained since the 1930s.
In April last year she made one of the most eloquent speeches ever heard from a senior British politician in defence of EU membership. In the same speech she said Britain should leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). She has U-turned on both too.
Pace the memory of Mrs Thatcher, U-turns in politics are not dishonourable. As Keynes famously declared: “The facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?” Mrs May is the mother of all U-turners. Having a year ago praised to the skies the EU and denounced the ECHR, she now wants to leave the EU but stay in the ECHR.
The first is based on her interpretation of the 37 per cent of the electorate who voted to quit the EU. The second on not confusing Brexiting with joining Belarus as the only other nation of the 47-strong Council of Europe membership that walks out of the ECHR. The ECHR and Council of Europe were Winston Churchill’s principal creation after 1945 and, ahead of 8 June, even quite strong anti-Brussels voters might draw a line at burying Churchill’s biggest post-war achievement.
Her record of U-turning goes further. When home secretary, she sent out vans covered with posters urging anyone who knew about someone working in the black or unofficial labour market to contact the Home Office. They were widely derided as “Shop an Immigrant” vans and British cultural unease on informing to the police was riled up. Mrs May swiftly U-turned and the vans were withdrawn from the streets.
Her Commons voting record has been strikingly illiberal: she voted in 1998 against equalising the age of consent; in 2000, she voted against the repeal of the notorious Section 28 law making it a crime to discuss homosexuality in schools; in 2001 and 2002, she voted against gay couples jointly adopting children.
She has U-turned on all these positions and there is not a hint of her previous homophobia in her government or in any utterances from Number 10 since she became Prime Minister. Again the facts changed and British society became tolerant of gay rights after the decades when judges sent 57,000 men to prison because they were gay.
Two years ago she joined with David Cameron in scorning Ed Miliband’s proposal to cap electricity and gas bills when the then Labour leader put forward the idea in the 2015 election. Now she has U-turned and Ed’s policy is today Theresa’s policy.
Purists will see this sequence of U-turns as proof that “la donna e mobile” (Women are fickle, as Verdi put it in the famous aria from Rigoletto). But in real life politics, only committed ideologues condemn such U-turning as deviation and seek to pillory those who elegantly execute the essential political pirouette of spinning on heels and facing the opposite direction.
It is clear that this lady is for turning. Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, has not U-turned on anything since his early 1970s ultra-leftism. Rigid consistency and inflexibility are the hallmarks of a weak not a strong leader. So stand by for and welcome more U-turns from Theresa May.
The big question is: once she is back with her own mandate, and the full consequences of amputating the British economy from Europe and removing the EU travel, work, residence and retirement rights of British citizens become clear, will we see another U-turn from a Prime Minister whose kitten heels appear to have a swivel built into them?