Well, she’s not the person many of us would have plumped for as prime minister, given a free choice. But options weren’t exactly thick on the ground when David Cameron announced he was going to spend more time with his family – and, as we said then, Theresa May was the best in the field by some considerable margin.
Like Jim Callaghan, she’s risen to the top by exuding solidity, the appearance of common sense, and a complete lack of ideology. ‘For two decades, she has avoided controversy, showed no particular commitment, refused to grab anyone’s attention,’ as Alwyn Turner has written elsewhere in these pages. ‘She has also said not a single word that was memorable,* expressed not an idea that was surprising. She seemed competent, but really very dull.’ And right now, after the sound and fury of the referendum campaign, competent and dull seems about right as a way forward for the United Kingdom.
On BBC’s Question Time last week, George Galloway referred to her as ‘John Major in a skirt’, and Peter Hitchens in his Mail on Sunday column reached for the same comparison: ‘Mrs May is no Margaret Thatcher. She is in fact the new John Major.’ In both instances, it was meant to be disparaging, but it needn’t be: an administrator rather than a revolutionary is probably what’s needed at this juncture. A weather-vane rather than a signpost, as Tony Benn used to say.
She has the advantage, of course, of following Cameron, not Thatcher – presumably he won’t seek to destroy his successor as she did hers. And she is likely to be more ruthless as a party manager than Major proved to be. Her first years in Parliament were spent watching Michael Portillo set up a rival court to that of the Tory leader William Hague, and we suspect she’s not going to tolerate a repeat of such behaviour from the Eurosceptic right. The fact she herself was a Portillista will only stiffen her resolve.
Beyond Westminster, the democratic – though never constitutional – case for holding an early general election has probably been diminished by the fact that May was chosen by MPs, rather than by the party membership. Her electors can point by way of a mandate for their decision to the millions of people across their constituencies who voted Conservative at the 2015 general election, and crucially to those swing voters in the marginal seats that produced the party’s majority. Albeit at one unsatisfactory remove from the people, the Tories in Parliament were a more legitimate selectorate than the 150,000 odd Conservative members in the country, who are far from representative of their fellow Britons. And, even on the first ballot, when there were five candidates, she secured the support of half the Conservative MPs.
But there still remains a very strong case indeed for an election this autumn.
The situation is not the same as it was last time round, when Gordon Brown inherited the premiership from Tony Blair in 2007. At the 2005 general election we all knew what was going to happen; indeed the Tories had toyed with the slogan ‘Vote Blair, get Brown’, only dropping it when they realized that focus groups saw it as an attractive promise, not a threat.
This time, there is no such justification. Cameron was returned to office last year in the expectation that he would stick around for a ‘full term’, not that he’d leave after just 13 months, with the central plank of his government’s platform – membership of the EU – broken beneath him. There has been an abrupt and total break in policy, not merely in personnel. To be a successful prime minister, May needs the support of the country, and she ought to seek it.
If she did so, she would (as things stand) almost certainly increase the Conservative majority. Because, while the Tories have been demonstrating yet again that they understand the business of government and holding office, the Labour Party – 92 years on from its first administration – shows no sign of having learnt any lessons at all in this field.
Lion & Unicorn was quick to cheer on the current ‘coup’ in the Parliamentary Labour Party because we take the view that, on any applicable criterion, Jeremy Corbyn is profoundly unsuited to the task of leading the Opposition. In intellect, rhetoric, organisation, ideology and guile he is surely the joint weakest holder of the post – with Iain Duncan Smith – of the post-war period, perhaps since the start of the Victorian era, possibly of all time. His removal – whether as Labour leader in the country, or simply in the House of Commons – is essential if the Opposition benches are again to provide an effective check on the government. And at a time when ministers and MPs are faced with deciding anew Britain’s relationship with the continent, indeed with the rest of the world, the lack of that constitutional bulwark could prove very dangerous indeed.
But already the hope that Labour might swiftly depose Corbyn has begun to fade. Angela Eagle was never the right candidate to do so, and the faltering start to her challenge, which also arrived devoid of policy or principle – things that matter in the Labour Party – has not augured well. She might yet prevail. Lion & Unicorn has long argued that Labour’s enlarged membership is by no means as unmovably pro-Corbyn as many commentators suppose; but the odds are against her, and Eagle has not, in any case, shown that she is capable of rising to the level of the events ahead. Unless a more convincing candidate emerges soon, the Opposition is likely to remain a weak and riven force, regardless of whether Corbyn survives.
As for May’s survival, if she wishes to govern for longer than her predecessor, and to leave a legacy beyond Brexit, she ought to throw off her customary caution and seize the opportunity for a snap election – helpfully being offered by the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats and pro-Corbyn Labour MPs. Not only would this close the democratic deficit created by her coronation, more importantly – for May – it would ensure the stability of both her government and her party.
At the moment, what rancour the referendum created between Tory MPs appears to have been put aside. If anything, they appear giddy at having survived it. Or perhaps they lost their heads in the excitement of choosing a new leader for the first time in over 10 years. But the reality is that the party has a slim majority – won on just 36.9 per cent of the vote – and has divided itself twice in the space of six months: over the referendum, and now over its leader. Given the issues confronting the incoming prime minister (to pick just three: the trade-off between the single market and free movement; a looming recession; continued industrial unrest in the NHS), it seems unlikely this harmony will last for long.
To govern effectively when the splits come, May must avoid being forced to bargain with the fringes of her party, as was Major’s fate during that oh-so long and ignominious parliament of 1992-97. Her only sure defence against this is sheer numbers: she needs to go to the country and secure a majority that makes the hard right of the Tory party an irrelevance – as Jeremy Corbyn was under the premiership of Tony Blair. Indeed, it may be that the resulting crushing defeat for Labour would also return him to that status.
We do not regard this as the best outcome for the country, of course. The experience of the 1980s offers scant cause for optimism about the future of industry, the public services, civil society, or the lot of the working class under a strong Tory government. But this would be the most logical, as well as the most democratic, course for Theresa May. And if she takes it, let’s hope that she is indeed more akin to Major than to Thatcher.
Since the referendum, there has been some excited talk about a re-alignment of British politics. And over the past weekend, as concern mounted that Andrea Leadsom might seek to lead the Tories back to moral conservatism, this produced media speculation about the emergence of a new centre party of social and economic liberals: the Remain(d)ers, if you like. But the one thing that the elevation of Theresa May suggests is that any such re-alignment isn’t now going to involve the Conservatives.
As so often in the past, the grand old ship of Toryism has been patched up yet again. In just two-and-a-half weeks, from the announcement of the extraordinary referendum result, the party has repaired the damage sufficiently well that the vessel is at least seaworthy, and has been placed under the command of a captain who knows how to trim sails. In the words of Tony Hancock: the best of luck to all who sail in her.
* The exception, of course, was her use of the phrase ‘nasty party’, but that was already in common currency when it became attached to her.