Out With the Old, In With the New. Britain Has a New Prime Minister
So it is good bye David Cameron. Whatever one thinks of him, his time in Downing Street has been dramatic: the first coalition government since the war, the Scottish independence referendum, his 2015 majority and finally, his undoing as he lost his third referendum. He is the youngest prime minister to leave office since Lord Rosebury and served a shorter tenure than John Major. His fall was sudden and history is unlikely to be kind to him.
In foreign policy there was never any grand Blairite vision. His intervention in Libya tried to avoid the mistakes of Iraq but the country has remained chaotic; he endured a humiliating parliamentary defeat over air strikes against Isis and only secured backing after the terrorist attacks on Paris. Domestically Cameron struggled to outline a vision for the country during a time of austerity. It was only after his 2015 mandate that he outlined his “Life Chances Agenda”. He now hands that nascent agenda to his successor.
The left has had a lot of fun at Cameron's expense, whether it be his Flashman persona or Steve Bell’s condom. Theresa May will be harder to pigeonhole. State-educated, experienced, hard-working, despite being at the top of Tory politics for a decade and a half, Theresa May remains a riddle: she has worked to stop the discrimination of stop and search (earning praise from The Voice) and pioneered the Modern Slavery Bill, but equally she has taken a tough stance on immigration and her recent refusal to guarantee EU residents a right to remain risks re-toxifying the Tory brand. In her leadership pitch she showed there is the beginnings of a different economic and industrial agenda. Could the irony be the second woman prime minister weaning her party off its addiction to the first?
However dull her reputation, her premiership will also be one of surprises.
May has prospered by being dull and diligent
In my previous civil service career, we changed roles every three years. I always found the best jobs to go for were ones with a feckless predecessor and manifestly unsuitable fellow candidates. This allowed you to look like a star merely by not being a shambles. I never realised that I was setting my sights too low on the government ladder and that one day prime ministers would be chosen this way too.
The Tories thirst for power is staggering in its shamelessness. Having crashed the country in an attempt to solve an internal party squabble, they started tearing themselves apart in the aftermath. But upon realising that infighting risked loosening their grip on government, they quickly snapped back into line behind a referendum losing “Remainer” and have somehow ended up looking like the organised ones.
Who knew that “taking back control” of Britain’s democracy actually meant Tory MPs anointing Theresa May as our new Prime Minister?
May has shown few signs of imagination or inspiring ideas during her two decades in politics. She has prospered by being dull and diligent, thus benefiting from the often misleading impression of competence these attributes generate.
It is a measure of how low British politics has sunk that May became the least bad bet for leader, simply by not being obviously deranged, deceitful or clueless. Compared to the other candidates who emerged over recent weeks, her arrival in No. 10 is a relative relief. And that is perhaps the most dispiriting feeling of a spectacularly dispiriting year.
May’s steadiness is deceptive
For the first (and probably only) time, I’m about to use the words “In fairness to Theresa May…” But, in fairness to Theresa May, she does feel like a leader. With British politics suffering a vacuum of leadership, it figures that her steadiness has been prized over opponents’ charisma or panache. It also figures that May - low-profile, uninterested in popularity - should lead during an unstable period where people are bound to suffer, and bound to be angry about it.
She’s accepted the poisoned chalice that Boris Johnson and other jump-ship Brexiteers were too cowardly to. Unlike certain Bullingdon boys, May also appears to be in government because she wants to be rather than because she can be, and she’s less immediately alarming than Andrea Leadsom’s gurning brand of free-market fanaticism.
Her steadiness is deceptive, though. Despite imitating leftist rhetoric (a vote-winning tactic in no way substantiated by her parliamentary record) May is virulently right-wing. She speaks of a society that “works for everyone, not just the privileged few”, yet has voted against lower VAT, banking regulations and rent controls, to name but a few, and was integral to a government whose zeal for cuts reached near-religious levels.
Sure, Theresa May has a steady hand. But the direction it’s shepherding us in? That's as authoritarian and unequal as anything the ‘Nasty Party’ has yet offered us.
a consistent supporter of Cameron’s anti-welfare agenda
Theresa May warned her party in 2002 that they were at risk of being perceived by the public as the “nasty party”. One of the reasons being that the Tories - controlled by social conservatives such as Iain Duncan Smith during most of the Blair years - had a hard line towards policies impacting the poor and disadvantaged.
When David Cameron was leader of the opposition, he sought to calm these anxieties by framing himself as a modernising, compassionate conservative leader.
When he came to power he quickly reneged on this commitment , as the vulnerable were thrown to the wolves in the name of austerity: with disability benefit and social care cuts, the rolling out of outsourced “fit for work” assessments and unpaid workfare, and cruelty like the bedroom tax.
May deserves credit for going against the grain as Home Secretary, with moves like establishing inquiries into alleged establishment child abuse and sparing the autistic Gary McKinnon from deportation to the US.
But she has been a consistent supporter of Cameron’s anti-welfare agenda - severe enough for even IDS to resign over. Based on this track record we can assume that the Nasty Party will continue unabated.
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