The practical faith of Theresa May

Theresa May pictured in Downing Street earlier this week (PA)

Theresa May was never an active supporter of the Conservative Christian Fellowship when I was its director, but when I moved to the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) she volunteered and delivered help from the day that Iain Duncan Smith founded it. And this gives a clue to the very English Christianity that shapes the politics of this vicar’s daughter.

May remains a regular churchgoer but she will never be someone who talks a great deal about her religious beliefs. Insofar as she wants people to know about her faith it is through works rather than words. And the works during her time as Home Secretary add up to a not inconsiderable legacy. Working with the CSJ, she enacted the Human Slavery Act and its ambition to curtail people trafficking.

Against resistance from the Conservative Party’s harder line law and order lobby she also oversaw reforms to “stop and search”. She felt that aggressive policing of ethnic minorities was wrong as well as counter-productive and she reformed it.

Many Christians may feel that her tough approach to immigration often lacked compassion and the infamous “Go home” vans that May eventually agreed to remove from the roads (after even Ukip had attacked them) were certainly a low point. Overall, however, there is nothing unChristian about controlling immigration. The greatest danger to race relations and to a nation’s openness to economic and humanitarian immigration is a failure to manage borders and for people to develop a sense that their communities and local services are being overwhelmed.

If you really want to apportion blame for anti-immigrant feeling it might be most appropriate to point fingers at the European politicians who designed the EU’s freedom of movement regime or the politicians who have never sought consent for the levels of immigration that Britain and other European nations have experienced over recent years.

May never, of course, succeeded in controlling immigration. And despite being the staunchest defender of the Tory manifesto promise to bring net immigration down from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands, she presided over an increase to 333,000 last year. The British people were quicker than May to understand that controlling immigration was impossible within the EU. For reasons that continue to perplex me, she opted to be a remainer – albeit a reluctant one – in last month’s EU referendum.

Her position has, of course, now helped catapult her to the highest political office in the land. By promising that “Brexit means Brexit” in the speech that launched her leadership bid, she won the support of a good number of Tory MPs who backed leave, including David Davis, Liam Fox and Chris Grayling. But she also appealed to remain-supporting Tory MPs who might not have quickly united behind Brexiteers like Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom if either of these more divisive characters had won the contest to succeed David Cameron.

The curtailment of the Tory leadership race because of Mrs Leadsom’s decision to drop out will provide a welcome end to the uncertainty that has bedevilled the nation since the EU referendum, but it also means that May’s brand of conservatism won’t be scrutinised through the grassroots hustings that were due to take place.

Although May has been a Conservative since she was a teenager – and was banned from local canvassing by her father because he didn’t want his parishioners to feel he was partisan himself – we don’t really know what kind of Conservative she is. She has given very few speeches on her political philosophy – preferring instead to focus on the portfolios assigned to her.

My instinct is that she understands the two main messages that the British people delivered in the EU referendum. One was, of course, that they wanted to leave the EU. The second was that they wanted economic change. That much was evident from the disproportionate number of poorer Britons who voted to leave and were indifferent to David Cameron’s warnings of economic instability.

In May’s promises to put representatives of workers on company boards she shows some awareness that capitalism needs to be reformed. But she’ll need a very broad social justice agenda to address the widespread sense that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. At least as big a danger to her premiership as failing to deliver Brexit will be a failure to deliver a more compassionate conservatism.

If we can’t be sure how the character of conservatism will change under May we can be pretty sure that the style of government will change. She doesn’t gossip. She doesn’t brief against colleagues. I remember, in the opposition years, that she used to dine night after night with her husband, Philip, rather than with journalists and colleagues. It’s back to where we began: May has got to the top of the political tree by achieving rather than befriending – by works rather than words.

This article is published in this week’s Catholic Herald. The whole issue will be available to download from Thursday