Theresa May might still be in office, just. But she is barely in power and might not be in office for very long. Europe has now wrecked the careers of the last four Conservative prime ministers – Margaret Thatcher, John Major and May.
She can never recover her authority, after calling a general election to show her strength which only exposed her fragility. She will limp on, with the help of the Democratic Unionist Party; nevertheless, the end of her time in Downing Street cannot be very far away. Her furious MPs have little or no respect for her, and would never allow her to lead it into another election – and there could easily be another soon.
Rarely has a politician fallen from grace so quickly. Seven weeks ago, the Tories had a 20-point lead in the opinion polls. They allowed expectations of a landslide to run out of control. Some believed Jeremy Corbyn was so weak that they could even match Tony Blair’s 179 majority in 1997. Now the working majority of 17 that May inherited has vanished.
There is no one else to blame. Philip Hammond and then David Davis both urged her to call a snap election but thought they had got nowhere. But May decided to go for it, despite her previous denials that there would be no early election. At first, a presidential campaign built on May seemed to be working.
But the Tory manifesto was a disaster. May’s secretive, dictatorial way of working allowed a shake-up of social care funding into her programme without her consulting her Cabinet colleagues. Nick Timothy, one of two all-powerful joint chiefs with Fiona Hill, was the architect of a policy that would hurt natural Tory voters.
May U-turned four days later, announcing a cap on individual’s lifetime care bills. To make matters worse, she ludicrously claimed that “nothing has changed”. It was the nadir of a bad campaign.
Her robotic style meant she was in denial in public about the blindingly obvious. She did not want a soundbite admitting she had made a mistake replayed over and over again. But denying the unprecedented U-turn was worse.
The misjudgment led to chatter among senior Tories that May was “just not very good at politics” – a remarkable statement that was to prove more prophetic than they realised. May was an awkward campaigner who rarely gave a straight answer to a question and couldn’t lighten up or look relaxed, as a normally tetchy Corbyn somehow managed to do. Asked what the naughtiest thing she did, she told ITV it was running through farmers’ wheat fields.
She headed what MPs in all parties regard as the worst election campaign they can remember. May thought she was responding to the public’s cry for change by asking them, in effect, to rubber-stamp the decision of last year’s EU referendum. But Corbyn trumped her by offering a different change – an end to austerity. Many people wanted that more than they wanted Brexit. Labour offered hope; May’s negative campaign only fear.
Even when the ambitious vicar’s daughter was at Oxford University, friends recall that she spoke of her desire to become prime minister, even suggesting she had a pang of jealousy when Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first woman prime minister in 1979. May, naturally, does not recall any of that.
Allies believe she had blown her chances of leading the Conservatives when, while Tory chairman in 2002, she said it was seen as “the nasty party”. She was insulting the party members whose votes she would need one day lead if she was to realise her ambition. She got flak from Tory activists for years afterwards.
After a succession of Shadow Cabinet jobs, she was a surprise choice as Home Secretary in 2010. There had been six holders of the office in the past six years, yet May stayed for six years, becoming the longest-serving Home Secretary in modern times.
May deservedly won plaudits for her work on tackling modern slavery and domestic violence, and limiting the use of ‘stop and search’ powers after the police were accused of targeting black people. She stood up to the United States by refusing to extradite Gary McKinnon, a computer hacker who had Asperger’s syndrome. She grasped the nettle on historical injustices such as the Hillsborough disaster.
The downside of May’s time at the Home Office was her decision to axe 20,000 police as part of the Coalition’s drive to reduce the deficit. Although crime fell by a third, the police cuts returned to haunt her after the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, which punctuated the election campaign.
She took a tough line on immigration, epitomised by sending vans emblazoned with a “Go Home” message around areas with large numbers of migrants. Only 11 people left Britain and the campaign was dropped.
Home Office ministers grumbled that May micro-managed the smallest decisions, foreshadowing the criticism now aimed at Timothy and Hill as Tory MPs and ministers demand that she sack them or clip their wings and govern more collegiately.
During the Coalition, she had tense relations with the Liberal Democrats, who found her difficult to work with. She clashed with Nick Clegg, who chaired the Cabinet’s home affairs committee and blocked her so-called ‘snooper’s charter’. She had differences with Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary, over the sentencing of criminals. “I lock them up. He lets them out,” she explained. She clashed with Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, who believed she was not tough enough on Muslim extremism, but appeared to adopt his view after the London Bridge atrocity.
During the EU referendum, May declined David Cameron’s repeated requests for her to bat for the Remain camp. She was dubbed “Submarine May” in Downing Street. In a clever piece of positioning, she was a Reluctant Remainer who said the “sky would not fall in” if the public voted for Brexit. That left her well-placed when Cameron quit after losing the referendum.
Her rivals for the Tory leadership – including Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom – all fell by the wayside and she was the last one standing. She had two days to prepare for entering Number 10 instead of the two months she had expected.
May pledged to govern for the ordinary working families who were “just about managing” rather than the “privileged few” – a dig at the old Cameron-Osborne regime. Their allies, mostly sacked by May, are bound to feel a sense of schadenfreude today. Less than a year later, the new regime looks like being remarkably short-lived.
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