Wednesday / September 19.
HomeFT SelectHow Theresa May won the hearts of Britain’s Brexiters

How Theresa May won the hearts of Britain’s Brexiters

As an ardent Brexiter, Simon Boyd did not support Theresa May to be prime minister.

After all, she not only sat out the UK’s EU referendum contest last June but quietly voiced support for key arguments to remain in the bloc.

But now Mr Boyd, the managing director of a specialty steelmaker in south-west England and regional head of a pro-Brexit business group, has the zeal of a convert.

Even though he confesses to a perpetual fear of “people in the shadows” seeking to derail Britain’s divorce from the EU, his trust in Britain’s prime minister is absolute.

“I have been . . . not just pleasantly surprised, I’m probably her biggest fan now,” he gushed last month. “If she went to the country right now, she’d win a landslide.”

Mrs May looks on track to do just that: after calling a snap election, polls suggest her Conservative party could win a majority of a hundred seats or more in parliament, giving her a powerful mandate to shape Brexit.

Remarkably, Mrs May has won not only the support of Brexit supporters such as Mr Boyd — many of whom have long felt betrayed by politicians — but their trust and faith too.

The bond she has forged with Brexiters — even though she did not fight alongside them — has helped Mrs May to secure her position and allowed her some space on how she will eventually manage the thorny issues of immigration and Britain’s contributions to the EU budget.

“She’s doing a cracking job!” said Eddie Strengiel, the long-time Conservative party chairman of Lincolnshire, a rural county in the east Midlands that delivered the greatest support for Brexit in the June referendum. “People basically see her as a sincere and truthful person who will deliver.”

Mr Strengiel went so far as to liken Mrs May to his political hero — a Lincolnshire-bred prime minister who also took a tough line against Europe: “I’m a Maggie [Thatcher] man, and I see her as her successor.”

Ric Metcalfe: ‘She looks the part, doesn’t she? Little shades of Thatcherite steel and the kind of schoolmarmish style that goes down well with some voters’

Even her critics admit her appeal. “She looks the part, doesn’t she? Little shades of Thatcherite steel and the kind of schoolmarmish style that goes down well with some voters,” said Ric Metcalfe, the Labour leader of the Lincoln city council.

Mr Metcalfe did not bother to sugarcoat the drubbing he foresees for his own party when voters go to the polls on June 8, even though he said he personally admires his leader, Jeremy Corbyn. “There’s a deep antipathy among voters. They have very fixed in their minds that this is not someone they can accept as prime minister,” he said of Mr Corbyn.

While the contrast with the far-left Mr Corbyn is stark, the more revealing one is between Mrs May and her immediate predecessor. Mr Cameron came from money and was a denizen of the Eton College elite; Mrs May is the daughter of a vicar, and has planted her flag in middle England. In spite of her taste for expensive fashion, she is seen as “down to earth”.

“She’s got a phone line into rural, provincial England, which Cameron did not,” a confidante of the former prime minister explained.

In terms of Brexit substance, it helps that Mrs May has long opposed uncontrolled immigration, the singular issue for many Brexiters. After she came to power, she did not hesitate to match word with deed.

She acknowledged the “public’s verdict” on Brexit when she stood outside Downing Street in her first appearance as prime minister last July and then appointed top Brexiters — including Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox — to senior posts in her cabinet while cutting loose Cameron loyalists.

“When she made her speech outside Downing Street my chin was on the floor,” Mr Boyd recalled.

Since then, her support for Brexit has been clear and consistent, calling for a full break from the EU at the Conservative party conference and again in January.

In particular, she has prioritised controls on immigration and removing the UK from the jurisdiction of the EU court at the cost of retaining access to the single market. The pound was battered as the market finally grasped her intentions and the business establishment grumbled.

Metropolitan Remainers have criticised her simplistic “Brexit means Brexit” mantra but Matthew Goodwin, a politics professor at Kent university, believes her soundbites have been “pretty spot on” for the intended audience.

“Theresa May and her team have grasped how the underlying faultlines in politics are changing — that values are becoming far more important to voters,” said Mr Goodwin, arguing that her religious convictions helped to support her message.

He expects the Conservatives to push deep into traditional Labour heartlands in the June vote, saying: “This will be another moment when London and the City realise just how conservative this nation is.”

Ukip councillor Jane Smith: ‘She’s doing a good job, but I don’t think her heart is really in it, for being a Remainer’

Not all Leavers are convinced. In 2004, Jane Smith was a part-time teaching assistant in Lincoln married to a man “who was just constantly shouting at the TV” over his frustration with the EU. At his wife’s encouragement, Nick Smith ended up founding the first UK Independence party branch in Lincoln.

After putting her name on the party ballot a few times, Mrs Smith was “shocked” in 2013 when — after three recounts — she won election to the city council by a single vote. She is passionate about both Brexit and her council work. Of Mrs May, she still has her suspicions.

“She’s doing a good job, but I don’t think her heart is really in it, for being a Remainer,” she said. The prime minister was “very good at projecting what people want to hear”, she added, “but does she actually follow through?”

Doing so may become more difficult in the months and years ahead, as the UK’s exit negotiations with the EU progress and the true trade-offs of Brexit become clearer. Already, Mrs Smith says some constituents are demanding their money — that is, the hundreds-of-millions of pounds in savings that Leave campaigners promised would result from an EU exit and which could then be used to shore up a leaking National Health Service.

Perhaps not at this election, but in time, the strength of the prime minister’s bond with the Brexiters will be tested.

“I was a Thatcher girl. I admired her greatly,” Mrs Smith said. “Will I be able to say that about May in a few years’ time? I don’t know.”

Via FT