THERESA MAY has always been something of a political enigma. When she was elected Conservative Party leader, the Tory Cabinet veteran Ken Clarke was asked about her politics. He replied: “I only know in detail what her views are on the Home Office.”
Many MPs who voted for her were taken aback when, in one of her first speeches as Prime Minister, she declared that she wanted to make the Conservatives “the workers’ party”, to serve the many groups of citizens who currently feel excluded from the fruits of British prosperity.
Those who knew her well were unsurprised by her concern for the disadvantaged. Inside the Home Office, she had been much exercised by issues of human slavery and had been warm in her dealings with the bereaved families struggling for justice over the Hillsborough football disaster. Her announcement this week that business leaders who award themselves huge pay packets constitute the “unacceptable face of capitalism” was of a piece with her instinct for fair dealing. Her rhetoric against those the popular press like to call “fat cat bosses” was fierce.
Sadly, the political reality is that her weakened position since the General Election means that she has had to dilute heavily what she originally intended in this area. Once she hoped to make it compulsory for firms to have workers on their boards. She wanted to give shareholders the power to curb the whopping pay rises that some company directors award to one another. At present, they can merely pass a resolution of impotent disapproval.
Those ideas have been dropped. Instead, her watered-down proposal is merely to create a register on which such bosses will be “named and shamed”. How effective this will be is open to question. Over the past four years, 283 leading companies have seen votes in which more than 20 per cent of their shareholders condemned exorbitant pay packages. Half of them simply ignored the vote. In the case of the WPP advertising supremo Sir Martin Sorrell, who was awarded £42 million last year, such a vote has been ignored seven years on the run.
What is intriguing is why Mrs May, after having to drop her tougher intentions, has not just let the whole matter quietly drop. Instead, she has increased the rhetoric, even though she has been forced to reduce the policy.
The explanation may be found in the private meetings that the Prime Minister has been having at Chequers with selected groups of backbenchers. The MPs and their partners have been greeted at the door by the Prime Minister with a glass of prosecco, canapés, and homemade chocolates. The message of this charm offensive is said to be: I will be resigning before the 2019 party conference, but meanwhile please give me time, without constant backbench rebellions, to carry through Brexit.
The highly charged rhetoric over “fat-cat pay” suggests that she wants to leave a political legacy that is a little wider than taking Britain out of the European Union. But the enfeebled nature of the measures she has announced this week reveal just how impoverished her legacy is likely to be.