Prime ministers are rarely judged on the power of their noses. The way they speak and listen attracts comment. They are praised if they have a common touch or strong vision. Smell is routinely underrated among the political senses, and yet I am increasingly convinced that deficiency in this department is Theresa May’s greatest weakness.
Not literally. I’m sure she can tell when the milk in a No 10 fridge is off. But she struggles with tests of political pungency. She did not catch vote-repellent whiffs emanating from her doomed election manifesto – the stale tang of foxhunting, for example. She has sidled close to Donald Trump, disregarding his offences against decency and democracy, without so much as a nostril twitch towards the American president.
raised this weakness once with a Downing Street aide in the context of EU nationals resident in the UK. It was this time last year, in the run-up to Conservative party conference. In the months since the referendum, pretty much everyone I knew of non-British background had received some stranger’s jibe to the effect that they had overstayed their welcome in this country. Data showing a surge in reported hate crime supported my anecdotal evidence, stuff we had seen: abuse hurled from passing cars; a child in tears because schoolmates asked when she was “going back” to a country she hardly knew.
There was something rancid in the air, and I wondered if the prime minister could smell it. This was not, I insisted, an invitation to change course on Brexit, nor a criticism of those who voted to leave the EU. Full-bore racists were a tiny minority. But it may, I said, be in the prime minister’s interests to show sensitivity. Somewhere on their liberation march, leavers trod in something nasty, and the new government should check its shoes. I was told that May was known as an ex-remainer and needed to consolidate her new credentials as a Brexiter. She dare not show sympathy for a cause she had abandoned.
A year later, no one thinks May has a soft spot for the 2.9 million EU citizens in the UK. The cloud of casual xenophobia has become a light rain of institutional prejudice: landlords refusing to let properties, employers demanding proofs of residency that are not required by law. Not yet. A government position paper, published over the summer, makes it clear that non-British EU citizens will have to apply to the Home Office for new legal status. Their subsequent entitlements, the ease with which they may reassemble a facsimile of what they have now, will depend on the date when they arrived in the country.
For most Brexiters, this is uncontroversial. EU membership made Britain open its borders to continental settlers. That arrangement will end, so it stands to reason that non-Britons must embark on the route to citizenship (which the government says will be easy) or accept their foreignness. To the leaver-believer, this is a generous offer. Move along, nothing to smell here.