‘Don’t let anyone here think that there is a better deal to be won by shouting louder.’
– Theresa May (2018)
‘You could be this generation’s Churchill.’
– Donald Trump to Theresa May (2018)
When Theresa May became prime minister in 2016, comparisons were inevitably made with her predecessor, Margaret Thatcher. She was ‘The Iron Mayden’ according to the Sun, and the international press reached for the same imagery: ‘The “Steel Lady”? May has mettle to match Thatcher,’ ran the headline in USA Today; ‘Una “Dama de Hierro” para el Brexit,’ suggested Spain’s La Razon; ‘La “dame de fer” du post-Brexit,’ said La Tribune in France.
Such references are thinner on the ground these days, and when they come they are used as a stick with which to beat the incumbent. ‘Theresa May’s premiership is unlikely to be judged by historians with any fraction of the respect accorded to Thatcher’s,’ pronounced Max Hastings, earlier this month.
It was, of course, always a spurious parallel, based solely on the fact that May was a woman. Much more plausible was Peter Hitchens’s assessment: ‘Mrs May is no Margaret Thatcher. She is in fact the new John Major.’ We rather welcomed the prospect.
Even by that measure, though, she remains something of a disappointment. Major won a general election against the odds in 1992, achieving the largest ever vote for a party, as he revealed a talent for public campaigning that was surely the product of his music-hall heritage. Twenty-five years later, in 2017, May threw away a massive opinion-poll lead and a slim parliamentary majority, as she displayed all the stagecraft of a former geography student.
Wounded and weakened, she limped back into Downing Street, leaning on an uncertain crutch she’d bought from the DUP. And she resumed the Herculean task of negotiating some sort of Brexit. A catastrophic year ended with the resignation of her first secretary of state, Damian Green, over allegations that he’d been watching pornography on his office computer.
This year has been even worse, a true annus horribilis. No Sunday newspaper has been complete without an account of the latest crisis to afflict the government, a rumour of the most recent plot to unseat her. To take just the most obvious upsets…
There have been six* resignations from the cabinet: those of Justine Greening, Amber Rudd, David Davis, Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and Esther McVey. Most were in protest at the prime minister’s handling of Brexit, though Greening was lost as a result of May’s mismanagement of a reshuffle. More significantly, Rudd’s departure was occasioned by the Windrush scandal, an issue that had its roots in May’s own time at the Home Office. That should have sent a warning that the popular appeal of a ‘hostile environment for illegal immigrants’ can be trumped by a call for fair play, but continuing uncertainty on the position of EU immigrants suggests lessons haven’t been learnt.
The confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP has proved less than binding, with the withdrawal of support on the finance bill, accompanied by threatening language about Brexit. ‘We have,’ declared the DUP’s Sammy Wilson, ‘punished the government for the promises they have broken.’ The deal is still just about alive, but further such ‘punishment’ may yet be deemed necessary.
In just the last month, the Commons has voted that the government acted in contempt of Parliament by withholding legal advice on Brexit, and 117 Conservative MPs have declared, albeit by secret ballot, that they have no confidence in their leader.
Meanwhile, May spent much of 2018 traipsing around Europe, being patronized, snubbed and marginalized by men in grey suits, while at home other men in other grey suits – in both the press and her own party – tore at her flesh with the ineffectual ferocity of toothless ferrets.
Despite all of which, the lingering image of the prime minister this year will not be that of a ‘dead woman walking’ (as George Osborne called her, following the disastrous 2017 election) but of her mum-dancing at the Tory conference. Not so much the new Margaret Thatcher, then, as the female Boris Yeltsin. If she’d played that card of awkward self-deprecation in the election, she might have fared better in public perception – it would have made a striking contrast with Jeremy Corbyn, a man who’s never been known to laugh at himself, or to acknowledge a mistake.
The content of that speech was also important. The proclamation of the end of austerity was more rhetorical than real – the NHS excepted, there is no sign of substantial increases in public spending – but rhetoric does matter. So too does the NHS. While most political commentators remain fixated on Brexit, the electorate is more concerned with hospital waiting lists and getting an appointment with their GP. And beyond health there is mounting unease about school budgets, Universal Credit, crime, homelessness and even the management of Britain’s prisons. With mission austerity accomplished, the government’s best answer to cries for more spending is gone; in order to avoid a repeat of the Major administration’s fate in 1997, May would be wise to embrace the new reality and make good on her 2016-conference promise that the state can be a ‘force for good’.
Her real trump card, though, has been the impression of resilience and duty. The House of Commons is not her home-ground as a politician – no public platform is – but her dogged stints at the despatch box, assailed from every quarter, have enhanced her reputation. And gradually there have come words of slightly surprised admiration from some unexpected voices.
‘I have a lot of admiration for Theresa May,’ reflected Glenda Jackson, earlier this year. ‘It is such a time to be as solitary as she is. She doesn’t get support, except from a small group of people. You look at her colleagues and think “She is the only grown-up in the room.”’ A.N. Wilson went further: ‘Something weird has stirred in my heart and it feels a bit like love.’
It’s partly in recognition of her stamina that we name Theresa May as our Politician of the Year. The fact that she’s still standing – in a characteristic stoop – is impressive. And the cry that she’s only there because there’s no alternative is itself a tribute to her: however damaged, she’s still plausible in a way that her would-be rivals are not.
We also salute her reinvention. No one is under any illusion that she’s a giant of a politician, and that we’re blest to be living in her times, but the idea is spreading that she is at least serious, that – trapped in a thicket of the Tories’ own making – she’s trying to find a way forward.
What that way is may not be of great significance politically. In opinion polls, the public expresses its dissatisfaction with the proposed Withdrawal Agreement, but this shouldn’t be taken too seriously; the public has no idea of – and, crucially, no interest in – the contents of that document. If the proposal were to be accepted by Parliament, our guess is that the country would be content to grumble along. The fact that the muddled compromise is so angrily denounced by both sides – #PeoplesVote clowns to the left of her, ERG jokers to the right – is itself a recommendation.
It’s all a fudge, of course, but that’s what one might expect from a politician who made one of the more considered speeches of the referendum campaign, setting out the pros and cons of the EU, before opting on balance for Remain. And it’s what one might expect from a leader trying to enact the wishes of a confused, divided electorate.
Like most voters – Remainers or Leavers – May is sceptical of European federalism and ambivalent to the EU as it actually exists. Similarly, she appears incapable of summoning enthusiasm for the Thatcherite dream of Britain as a North-Atlantic Singapore; this lady, like the British people, is not for buccaneering.
She may have promised a Global Britain, but the prime minister’s vision for our future outside the EU is typically parochial: business as usual, only with less Europe and (crucially) fewer Europeans. Unlike those Remain politicians who seek to undo the referendum, and those Brexiters intent on making of it a mandate for further free-market ‘reforms’, May has imposed no ideology of her own upon the vote to Leave. Almost uniquely among frontline politicians, she has sought genuinely to ‘honour’ the result.
Foremost, she has put ending freedom of movement at the heart of her strategy. In part this is personal – May was the chief architect of the ‘hostile environment’, and it was she who made that pet cat speech at the 2011 Conservative Party conference. But prioritising greater control of immigration was also an accurate reading of the referendum result, and one which People’s Vote campaigners and Brexiters of a Norwegian bent still fail to address, two and a half years later.
More nebulous, but captured early in her much-derided dictum ‘Brexit means Brexit’, has been May’s belief that the referendum is a fixed point in British political history. Other politicians understand that thwarting the Leave vote could prove costly at the ballot box, but May regards failing to deliver Brexit as dangerous: perhaps not in the French sense of Citroëns ablaze in the streets, but certainly as regards its implications for Westminster’s legitimacy.
The loss of trust in politics following No Brexit would dwarf the anger that followed the Iraq War or the expenses scandal. And May is right to fear it: all kinds of nasty parties might fill the vacuum. She is right too to see the referendum, and the remarkably stable polling on it since, as pointing to a future of careful but lasting divergence from the EU project. Far from being an endorsement of radical change, opting out of Europe is best understood as something authentically Tory: an attempt to stay the minute hand.
May also wins this award because she may yet prove to be a hugely significant prime minister. Not just for presiding over the first version of the Brexit deal, but also because of that aforementioned danger. The relationship between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary is looking a little uneasy, as though a realignment of powers may be on the cards. The constitutional confusion caused by the referendum – combined with two indecisive results in three general elections (under a system intended to ensure a majority), plus a Speaker of the Commons who’s perceived to be partisan – has led to a noticeable lack of stability and a further erosion of British political norms. May’s attempted use of prerogative powers to steamroller Brexit through Parliament has heightened the tension. We may not see anything on the scale of the Parliament Act of 1911, but it’s not entirely implausible.
What happens next, however, isn’t our subject right now. This is about the year that’s just passed, not the one to come.
Except to note that, finally, we honour Theresa May now because we may not get another chance to do so. It is perfectly possible that by the close of 2019, she’ll be gone from politics. And possible too that she’ll be being spoken of as the last leader of the old Conservative Party.
In 1961, Harold Macmillan warned that joining the European Community ‘could break the Tory Party’. It didn’t. In fact it was Labour that split first over Europe. But for the last three decades, the Conservative membership has been at odds with a leadership that – whatever the previous inclinations of the individuals – has proved soggily pro-European when in office. (The miserable incumbency of Iain Duncan Smith is the exception that proves the rule: a leader in tune with the membership was swiftly defenestrated by his colleagues.)
Like John Major, May has managed to hold together the coalition of big business and Little Englanders thus far, but there are no guarantees. And perhaps the kind thing to do would be to put the Tories out of their misery in a sort of political EUthanasia. As Macmillan also pointed out: ‘It never hurt the Party to split over something that was really in the national interest.’
* James Brokenshire also resigned, while undergoing treatment for lung cancer, but has since returned as communities secretary.