Theresa May has three faces that she shows to the world: the Brexit Boudicca, the dull technocrat (her default mode) and then what we saw today: the optimistic globalist. This act, that tends to come out only in set-piece speeches, portrays her as an open-hearted, funny and even (at times) inspiring Prime Minister. The speech today was perhaps the best she has given.
Politics isn’t about governing. It’s about making and winning arguments, telling captivating stories, winning people over. And this afternoon, she told stories: of penniless migrants from the Punjab whose son went on to become (her) Home Secretary. Of a mother-to-be, soon to marry her girlfriend and still lead (her) party in Scotland. And about a party that cares for the NHS not because of the size of spending (although that did get a mention) but because senior Tories use and even depend on the NHS. It helped her Housing Secretary recover from cancer, and NHS care regularly helps her manage her Type-1 diabetes. All of these stories were powerful because they were true. And they were all the more effective because the speech was peppered with flashes of the self-deprecating humour that she displays every three months or so. These are the new Tories: prick them, and they bleed.
She then spoke about a Britain keen to engage in the world, a Britain whose geography makes it the perfect bridge between east and west, able to speak to Shanghai over morning coffee and San Francisco at night. The country that welcomes immigrants, and whose governing party despises racism – and salutes, twice in one conference, Dianne Abbot. So today we heard the Globalist, the Theresa May of the Lancaster House speech, the Davos speech, the ‘burning injustices’ speech and Florence speech.
It was almost hard to believe that this was the same Theresa May who, two years ago, was snarling about the ‘citizens of the world’ being ‘citizens of nowhere’ – when she was doing her Brexit Boudicca act. The same one used when she called the general election asking for a mandate to go and biff Johnny Foreigner and crush those saboteurs. Or the same Prime Minister who did so many interviews of mind-numbing technocratic boredom (the most recent of which was on the Today programme yesterday and, before that, on the Marr sofa failing to make a proper apology for the Windrush debacle).
So yes, this was a very well-written speech, delivered well. But is it her? Or a voice that her speechwriter chose for her? Her supporters will see the strong, compassionate Theresa they always believed in. Her detractors will see a Maybot programmed by someone decent for a change, but still just reading a script with someone else’s thoughts, ideas and emotions. And that, without this script, it all vanishes. Drop her in an interview – to rely on her instincts and respond with remarks that no one could script for her – and would she repeat or elaborate on points we heard her make today? This this problem with being a Prime Minister: you’re not defined by set-piece speech but by how you handle day-to-day events.
At the end of Forster’s Room With a View, Rev Beebe hears Lucy playing the piano with a gusto and passion that belies her mousey persona. He takes this as a sign of something different (and great) bubbling away inside her. ‘If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays,’ he says, ‘it will be very exciting – both for us and for her.’ If Mrs May were to govern as she spoke today, then it would be exciting – for us and for her. But that’s a big if. At this stage late in her premiership, we ought not to expect too much of a change.