Theresa May is a home secretary dressed up as Prime Minister

Rachel Cunliffe
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Theresa May Faces A Confidence Vote In Her Leadership Over Brexit
What unites Theresa May’s worst disasters? The Home Office (Source: Getty)

The UK is facing a violent crime crisis.

Fatal stabbings are at their highest since 1946, with 27 knife deaths so far in 2019.

Police numbers in England and Wales are down more than 20,000 since 2010. Other crime-reducing initiatives, from youth outreach to social services, have also seen drastic funding cuts in that time.

Cuts to services are only part of a fiendishly complex problem, but it is hard to look at the numbers and not see a link. That is, however, what Theresa May tried to do on Monday.

Many disagree. The Metropolitan police commissioner, for example, and the home secretary, who has been pushing for more resources for police. And with news of yet another death in London on Thursday, people are losing patience.

Newspaper front pages this week warned of a “knife crime epidemic” and asked “how many more?”.

Yet as the public mood has turned from sadness to outrage, the Prime Minister’s response has been inadequate. There are many issues at play here, from gang culture and drugs to a reduction in stop-and-search procedures, educational failure, and family breakdown. But complexity is no excuse for inaction.

If May thinks it simplistic to point the finger at cuts, she should at least engage with the issue and offer leadership. Instead, her main intervention in the debate this week was a defensive rejection of the charge that police numbers are linked to the crime rate.

Partly, this is due to her chronic tin-ear syndrome. While we should not expect every leader to have Tony Blair’s flair for gauging the national zeitgeist, May is the other extreme, shutting her eyes to what is on the front of every newspaper.

Part of it is also perhaps her discomfort with showing emotion. While we can be sure that May’s private reaction to news of young people dying in knife attacks is no different from our own, the ability to show empathy is a leadership requisite which the current Prime Minister appears to lack.

Even so, May’s cold-blooded obstinacy this week seems surprising. She must have aides able to translate the public mood for her. So what’s stopping her from listening?

To answer this, let’s take a trip down the memory lane of May’s history of stubborness.

She is not deliberately dogged on all policy areas. While many have lambasted her refusal to compromise on Brexit, for example, her inflexibility on that issue is down to the tension between factions in the Tory party, parliamentary maths, and the EU’s own red lines.

May’s Brexit stance has been preserved in aspic more due to the absence of wiggle room in any direction than to her own ideology – which she does not appear to actually have, given the concessions she has eventually made.

Yet there are some issues where she has flagrantly refused to concede until it is too late.

Take medicinal cannabis. Last year brought to the country’s attention the tragic plight of a boy with severe epilepsy denied the medication he needed. Other patients also deplored the government’s outdated drugs policy that prohibits medicine successfully used in other developed countries from reaching the people who need it here.

The cabinet urged the Prime Minister to rethink the policy in the face of mounting evidence and the public’s obvious sympathy. But despite some case-by-case exceptions, May still rejected a full change in the law

Or look at the Windrush scandal – thousands of people who have lived here legally for decades, wrongly harassed or even deported thanks to the policy of creating a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants.

May refused to take responsibility or apologise, leaving the home secretary at the time, Amber Rudd, to take the fall for her and resign.

Then there’s immigration in general, and the blind fixation the May administration has with cutting numbers at all costs, towards an arbitrary target of under 100,000.

This has led to some disastrous policies, from rejecting visa applications from people with sought-after skills who don’t meet unrealistically high salary thresholds, to undermining key industries and sectors that rely on access to talent.

Again, public sentiment is not on May’s side. While uncontrolled immigration has been a key concern, polls routinely show that most Brits understand the value of skilled foreign workers, and also those in high-demand fields like social care.

They don’t want to see families split up because of mindless bureaucracy, and they feel the injustice of penalising people who – like the Windrush generation – have committed no crime except to be on the wrong side of government attitudes.

May’s response, however, has been to press on with a range of policies that are economically illiterate, often unpopular, or, in the case of making landlords responsible for visa checks, unlawful.

What unites these disasters? They all fall under the purview of May’s previous domain: the Home Office.

Like cuts to police numbers, they are directly linked to decisions that she herself made as home secretary.

May’s failure is that she is set on defending her legacy as home secretary rather than governing like a Prime Minister. The consequences – for the families tormented by knife crime, for patients denied cannabis-based medicines, for immigrants blocked from Britain, and for the UK economy – are significant.

It seems you can take the woman out of the Home Office, but you can’t take the Home Office out of the Prime Minister.

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