The Fall of Theresa May Does Not Mean the End of Theresa May
When it came, it came quickly. It is not that the fall was unexpected nor its rapidity surprising. The Prime Minister tried to ride the wave of Brexit populism. At times, she seemed almost daring but ultimately was unequal to the task. The impossible legacy of her predecessor made her fall inevitable but few realised it would happen so soon. Probably most expected it when she returned from Brussels with a deal and slogans alone could not steer her path.
As it is, she has lost the last vestiges of her authority. When they write her political obituary, her response to the Grenfell tragedy will be written as the final nail.
The image of Jeremy Corbyn hugging residents, while the Prime Minister was cordoned off as she patrolled the site with emergency services, was striking. It is cynical, even wrong, to pair disaster with partisan pettiness - rather than with more important issues such as poverty, equality, humanity - but it is inevitable. May’s one-time strength is now her debilitating weakness.
Too often we see politics in black and white terms. Seven weeks ago, May was “strong and stable”, now she is “weak and wobbly”: the truth is she was never the former but that does not mean she is the latter. Gordon Brown was never Joseph Stalin and certainly not Mister Bean.
In the short term, May is further undermined as former Cabinet allies, such as Philip Hammond, conduct an open and defiant dialogue about the economy and Brexit; she is helped by the fact that there is no obvious successor. Hammond fancies himself but noone else does; Amber Rudd only has 11 months experience in a high-profile government job and clung onto her Hastings seat by the skin of her teeth; Boris Johnson would probably win an immediate contest. And that’s why there won’t be one.
There is something to be said for David Davis. The son of a single mother who grew up in Tooting, he has - perhaps like John Major - at least a story to tell the electorate. And yet… and yet…
She may not be strong but she is tenacious
The vitriol we heap upon our leaders (I make no comment as to its justice) may be unique but May is used to humiliation. In 2005, she withdrew from the Tory leadership without anyone noticing she had entered it, only to watch the less experience Cameron succeed and advance an agenda she had been working on. Part of her animosity towards Michael Gove might have been that it was May who formulated his “free schools” policy while Shadow Education Secretary.
May has been in top flight politics for nearly two decades. Again she resembles Brown, though she lacks the latter’s multi-layered intellect. She joined the Shadow Cabinet in 1999, when it was hopeless to be a Tory: Blair was in his ascendency, Labour’s popularity seemed unbeatable, serving in a host of middle-ranking jobs, part of the team but never quite part the in group. Unlike many, she lasted.
She may not be strong but she is tenacious.
So long as she is seen as a useful prop by the Tory right, she might be secure. May might also be helped by her stubbornness. Every account by former colleagues attests to her ability to disconcert in negotiation. Promoted to Home Secretary as the obvious candidate in a Cabinet not repleat with female talent, she stuck rigidly to the Conservatives’ immigration target. Like Brexit, no one knew whether she believed it a good idea, only that it was a job that she had been given and therefore would see it through.
Her conversion from quiet Remainer to Hard Brexiter must be seen in that context: belief is unimportant; perceived duty is. Therefore, the idea that losing her majority necessitates a change in policy might not even occur to her granite-like mind.
Stable would be putting it too, well, strongly but she is dogmatically rigid.
She is a weak prime minister of a weak administration
Curiously, May's great weakness might serve her survival: her ability to operate under the radar. Unlike a Blair or a Cameron, she does not appear to crave attention or popularity - either on a personal or political level. She kept quiet as she sat around the Cabinet table with hyperactive colleagues such as Gove. She stayed quiet until she could humiliate them.
During the first six months of her premiership she remained sphynx-like, saying little but, like more charismatic politicians, allowing voters to project their beliefs onto her. When she eventually opened her mouth during the campaign, she was found out.
It might be that Theresa May survives - not to go on and on but for a little while - by just disappearing. That’s how she obtained the premiership. A period of silence might allow her rivals to demonstrate their unsuitability; their every intervention merely increasing the idea that the future does not belong to them.
This is not a prediction. The fast pace of politics makes guesswork a mug’s game. Still less is it saying that she should stay or that her qualities are one we should look for in a prime minister. The Tories are not being wise to keep her to soak up the flak: it is a sign of their weakness too. I not saying any of this is noble: she is a weak prime minister of a weak administration. She has fallen but that does not mean she is finished yet.
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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