The Question Theresa May Won’t Answer: What Is Mayism?

During her honeymoon it should not surprise us that Theresa May can get a good headline out of the shape of her nose. Her accession to the premiership has provided the British people with catharsis after years of “Tory cuts” and wage stagnation. Her current popularity is as much about her definition in opposition to her predecessor as it is to do with any virtues she brings to the job. John Major and Gordon Brown took over from long-standing leaders who had made unpopular political decisions (the poll tax and Iraq). Like them, May is being given the benefit of the doubt. She knows what happened to both and will not be keen to repeat their history.

Her beginning-of-term interview with Andrew Marr was characteristic May: she was straight-forward but gave little away. Asked about grammar schools she replied with a side step. On Hinkley Point she promised no quick judgement but said she would look at the evidence then make a decision. She scorned another Scottish referendum. On a snap general election she was clear: the next general election will be in 2020. She has been so consistent on this that it will be near impossible for her to back down without losing credibility.

One thing we do know of May’s government is that it will implement Brexit. She sees no need for a referendum on its terms or a Brexit general election. There are concerns about how practical a second referendum would be: could the UK reject its leaving terms which would be negotiated after Article 50 has been triggered? It is also politically astute: any referendum must come if there is public pressure as equal to that which lead to the vote itself. She has said it so often we must believe it - and she repeated at the Hangzhou G20 on Sunday. As many a wag has parodied: Brexit means Brexit but what does Brexit mean?

unlike Oliver Twist, Theresa May will not be able to ask for more

It is both a fair and unfair question. The government has not adjusted to the new post-EU landscape. It has no formal position on its priorities for negotiations. Indications are that May wants to prioritise immigration control which firmly puts the “Norway option” off the table. Her chancellor - and the second in order of government precedence - Philip Hammond is keener on retaining access to the EU’s free market. Before the government can start negotiations it will have to resolve this tension.

For all that, the UK will have to accept what it is given by the 27 countries with whom it is negotiating. That may be a good deal or a bad deal; it will be a deal conducted under the two-year limit of Article 50 and, unlike Oliver Twist, Theresa May will not be able to ask for more.

It seems remarkable that a few months ago, before David Cameron retired to Whitney to write his memoirs, George Osborne was talked about as a possible successor. Or Boris Johnson. May’s lack of privileged upbringing has freed the Conservatives of their public school leaders. Her Chequers Cabinet meeting emphasised that, like her predecessors, she does not want to be defined by one issue. She wants her government to be about more than EU retreat. She placed as much emphasis on developing an industrial strategy, dealing with bad business practises and making the economy work for the many not the few. Rhetoric? Let’s see shall we?

public discontent is like water: it finds a way of leaking out

Brexit - whatever the long-term situation - will almost certainly cause a slowdown in the economy. Although Hammond has ditched the government’s deficit reduction strategy that may not be enough to stop pressure on poorer households. What will be the government’s policies for helping them through this? How will she deal widening wealth inequality? What, if anything, will she do about the fact the the average wage of the top fifth is five times greater than that of the poorest fifth?

The questions go further. We have yet to really understand May: what is the philosophy which informs how she makes decisions, beyond supposed pragmatism? Also, is she able to translate these underpinnings into a language which resonates with the public? Her temperament may shy away from grand philosophy but she needs to show voters where she wants to go. To put it in New Labour terms, Theresa May needs a narrative.

May has pulled off the trick of making the public believe she offers something new and different from Cameron’s government (of which she was a member). That is the easy bit. It is a ploy she can only play once. Negative definition can only go so far and last so long. Labour’s problems mean she can be confident of winning the next election. However, public discontent is like water: it finds a way of leaking out some day somehow. Ask Tony Blair or David Cameron about that one.

There is also a closer example. A leader who has defined himself by what he is against but who has totally failed to articulate, except in meaningless platitudes, what he actually stands for: Jeremy Corbyn. And the stench of his failure is one which the prime minister's keen nose will smell easily.

More about the author

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.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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