As I See It
May to begin equality agenda in the boardroom
As a vicar’s daughter and former banker, Theresa May has spent a lifetime trying to reconcile God and Mammon. Now the new Tory leader and Prime Minister faces the task of bringing together two opposing forces in her party.
Mrs May was hurriedly ushered into the job she had been hoping to secure after a gruelling nine week campaign. From Wednesday night the Home Secretary will move into Downing Street and as someone with a reputation for getting things done she is expected to have a new Cabinet in place by the weekend.
She will not want to waste time getting on with what needs to be done, chief of which will be dealing with Britain’s future relationship with Europe and uniting her party around an issue that has threatened to tear it apart.
In her debut speech outside the Commons, delivered just hours after learning that MPs had formally backed her, she declared that Brexit will go-ahead. Given that she may be forced to call a General Election, she will at least want to show to the electorate that progress has been made before asking voters to give her a mandate. That would put a General Election off the agenda until at least the autumn of next year.
Her elevation to the top job came in a few extraordinary hours when her only rival Andrea Leadsom withdrew from the contest. Mrs Leadsom undid her own ambitions through her clumsy conversation with a newspaper, and then by making matters worse by resorting to that mischievous old tactic of trying to shoot the messenger when she didn’t like seeing her comments in print.
Mrs May may have won some support on the back of Mrs Leadsom’s mealy-mouthed opinions on motherhood, but she is also not everyone’s cup of tea. Her record on defending Britain’s borders is just one of a number of criticisms aimed at her before she has had time to change the Downing Street curtains.
Her campaign launch, which was overshadowed by Mrs Leadsom’s withdrawal, was reduced to a bit-part in a dramatic day. Her speech in Birmingham, however, contained the seeds of her plans for leading the government.
She has been setting out her credentials as a defender of human rights and working people, which may raise eyebrows among those who will point to her attacks on trades union and human rights.
Her address on inequality and social issues included a declaration that under her leadership “the Conservative party will put itself – completely, absolutely, unequivocally – at the service of working people.”
Maybe she got a little confused over which party leadership she was contesting. Or maybe it was an unintended reinforcement of Angela Eagle’s message to Jeremy Corbyn that Labour has lost the support of the same demographic.
Mrs May made it clear that she wants to lead an equality agenda, beginning with reforms in company boardrooms. In particular, she wants employees and consumers to have seats on boards and give more power to shareholders. She is calling for votes on executive pay to become binding rather than advisory.
Her statement at least suggests that she wants to see action rather than wishy washy promises. She also has a bit of track record on equality, having fought for same-sex marriages, now part of British law.
Tackling boardroom excess would be a popular move which would put some points on the scoreboard early in her tenure.
There have been many calls for executive pay to be reined in, not least from activist shareholders who, in spite of their ownership and protests, have no power to insist on pay and bonus packages being curbed.
The new PM has clearly decided that enough is enough and has warned that boardrooms are often made up of “narrow social and professional circles” who fail to provide adequate scrutiny of how firms are run.
“If I’m prime minister, we’re going to change that system – and we’re going to have not just consumers represented on company boards, but workers as well. We’re the Conservative party, and yes, we’re the party of enterprise – but that does not mean we should be prepared to accept that ‘anything goes’.”
Inevitably, Mrs May and Mrs Leadsom drew comparisons with Lady Thatcher, and this sort of tough-talking will only make the similarity clearer for Lady Thatcher’s successor.
Whatever else others thought of her, Lady Thatcher took on the naysayers and demanded change. On her appointment as Prime Minister she quoted the words of St Francis of Assisi: ‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope’ …
Mrs May’s message is a little less philosophical, but no less moral. Aside from corporate and economic equality, she says she wants to tackle racial and class injustice, discrimination against women, those suffering from mental health problems, and the young who are unable to buy a home.
She faces, of course, that immediate challenge of unstitching Britain from the EU, something that Lady Thatcher may have relished, given her instinctive distrust of the European project.
Mrs May was a Remainer, but has accepted the Brexit verdict. Achieving a new settlement with Europe will be a test of her negotiating skills and the outcome will be her lasting legacy. Adopting a little of Lady Thatcher’s refusal to accept the status quo would not go amiss.