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May’s way

The prime minister has clambered up the greasy pole in a stealthy style of her own. Don’t imagine she’ll be easy to dislodge from the top

Theresa May is the stealth prime minister. A year ago, few tipped her for the top. She was too old, too dry, too uncharismatic and far too reluctant to schmooze. Her victory was so unpredicted and unpredictable, her life story should be incorporated into the national curriculum as an example of the value of luck, self-belief and hard work. Throw in a political crisis, the absurd over-reach of rivals and a spooky calm under pressure, and you are close to working out how May won the prize.

It is six months since this long-serving, middleof-the-road, cricket-loving Conservative—once characterised by William Hague as a “middleorder batsman”—launched her leadership campaign one morning and, before it was time to think about lunch, had become prime minister-in-waiting. Six months that have been increasingly punctuated by a low chorus suggesting, in the phrase so often applied to women, that she’s not quite up to it. Yet, even after that excruciaing hand-holding snap with the wild and distrusted new American president, no one seriously thinks she is at risk.

That is not only because—in truth—Donald Trump grabbed her hand, and she extracted herself as fast as she decently could. Nor is it because she enjoys a giddying lead in the polls over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. Nor is it even because there is no obvious alternative PM surreptitiously marshalling support on the backbenches. It is, most fundamentally, because the course through the shoals and reefs of Brexit is still unknown. It is easy enough to criticise her. But the only coherent alternative to her newly revealed strategy of putting immigration controls ahead of prosperity and walking out of the single market (and probably the customs union, too) is the Liberal Democrat approach of denying the referendum conclusively settled the matter.

The distinctive aspect of May’s conservatism, perhaps even of something that will one day be called Mayism, is the way she has placed the value of identity and community ahead of the needs of the economy. In the name of social cohesion, she will control immigration even at the expense of relations with our largest trading partner: the European Union. In the face of every grim economic forecast, she has remained unflinchingly true to tighter border controls, although her other ideas about, say, reining in corporate greed, have crumbled away. She has captured the meaning of Brexit so that it means what she wants it to mean. Unelected by country or party, this “Remain” voter has made delivering for the 52 per cent of “Leave” voters her purpose, her mandate.

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In Prospect’s March issue: Sam Tanenhaus, George Magnus and Dahlia Lithwick examine the state of America after Donald Trump’s first couple of weeks. Tanenhaus looks at the situation faced by the American press, Magnus looks at the state of global trade and Lithwick inspects the diminishing right to choice women face over abortion. Anne Perkins explores the rise of Theresa May through the political ranks and David Edmonds looks at how empathy affects our decision making. Also in this issue: Jay Elwes on Trump’s relationship with America’s intelligence agencies, Anita Charlesworth on the state of the NHS and Nick Cohen on what is done in the name of “the people” by politicians