May’s luck might finally run out as Prime Minister
Theresa May has benefitted from good fortune throughout her life. She was fortunate enough to get into a high performing grammar school and then into Oxford. She became an MP in 1997 at the start of the Blair years, giving her the time to work her way up the ranks of the Conservative party, out of the eye of the media and largely free from scrutiny. The New Labour project came crashing down in the same five years that Mrs May firmly entered the opposition’s front bench; the press were still more preoccupied with criticising the failing Labour government than scrutinising her. She successfully lined herself for one of the great offices when they took office in 2010. Her timing couldn’t have been much more fortunate.
Entering the Home Office in 2010, her inheritance gave her something to work with. Pretty much anything she did could be seen as an improvement. She quickly ended Labour’s grand “big brother” projects like universal identity cards. Doing this helped stop an authoritarian image of leadership forming, even as she oversaw the mass collection of data and invasion on our emails and phone calls.
The most startling thing has been how little scrutiny her performance in the Home Office has come under, given the fact her record is quite poor. The word that comes to mind when I think of her record in government is “backlog”. In the summer of 2012, we were preparing for the Olympics, but May failed to prepare border security by not increasing staff ay passport control, leading to queues of several hours. It was not rocket science to think there might be increased demand during the 2012 London Games. Most shocking was the photo of box upon box of passport applications that showed the backlog that existed at the passport office in 2014. In the same year there was a backlog of over 100,000 asylum seekers who had lived in Britain for more than seven years who were still waiting for an initial decision on whether they could stay.
But bigger issues seem to have distracted from her failings. Her failure to get immigration down to the Conservatives pledge of “tens of thousands” was helped by the fact she had nothing she could do about EU immigration, largely ignoring the fact she has failed to get even non-EU immigration down to pledged levels. The high levels of asylum seekers still waiting a verdict could be blamed on the backlog created by the Labour government. The lengthy delay in removing Abu Qatada could be contrasted to Labour who failed after four years to get him extradited.
Despite all this, the press have only been too willing to portray her as a steady hand since the truncated leadership race began. Mostly citing the one occasion where she took on the police, they have portrayed her as strong leadership for the country, even though this sole occasion where she took a firm hand had pretty dire consequences, leaving our streets unprotected and our police force disheartened. Instead, she should have lobbied the government to to direct funding to her starved department from those that already had bloated budgets. This would have kept the country much safer.
The other great benefit of being at the Home Office is it’s not a place of original thinking. Its history allowed May to portray herself as the best thing to happen to it in modern history. The Home Office doesn’t require policy making based on ideology or principles, you just have to keep the country secure (although May has failed even on this count). This has saved her from ever having to say what she truly stands for and thus hasn’t lost popularity through alienating people. At the same time her followers have been quick to remind us that she is the longest serving Home Secretary in the modern era. She has been lucky that people forget the history of the job. Until the Blair years, the Home Office was a much bigger job. In 2007, criminal justice, prisons and probation were removed from the Home Office brief making the job much more manageable. Therefore a direct comparison with previous Home Secretaries is not possible because the role is easier than it used to be. Furthermore, she was lucky to serve a Prime Minister who rarely shuffled the ministers in the Great Offices of State. Moving May would never have been of much benefit to him and trying to balance her demands against Osborne secured her.
And then came her luck during the leadership competition. Despite being on the losing side over the EU referendum, her position allowed her to keep a lower profile than several other ministers and she was noticeably absent. Remain lost and took out the PM and Chancellor in one foul swoop. The next rival, Boris Johnson, was taken out by another rival, Michael Gove, who, in his backstabbing moment, obliterated his own chances of power. Gove was also victim of his own past; the multiple videos of him saying he would be a poor PM worked in May’s favour, making the role look like it needed someone experienced. This left one opponent – a relatively unheard of energy minister, Andrea Leadsom. And the media pounced on the woman who had never come under much scrutiny and had never been properly prepped for the media. Despite this, Leadsom would have posed a significant challenge as she would have had support from the grassroots. So it was lucky for May that the media attacks crushed the spirit of her main rival, who realised she was not quite ready to take on the media.
Meanwhile the media went on a PR campaign on Mrs May’s behalf. The Daily Mail, within hours, came out in support of her. The Telegraph pulled an article criticising her and replaced it with an article recounting the love story of how Mr and Mrs May met and fell in love. It seemed that the media had hopped on her ship sensing the direction of the wind, and failing in their duty to properly scrutinise her. This was reminiscent of the Maria Miller expenses saga, where the Culture Office sent a memo to the papers telling them to think carefully about publishing details of Maria Miller’s (the then Culture Secretary) expenses. They reminded the presses that she was at the time dealing with the Leveson enquiry, a threat to curtail press freedoms if they didn’t support her. And so May was lucky that the press didn’t want to get on the wrong side of her.
Finally, May was lucky in Parliament. She garnered the support of so many MPs because they saw her as the likely winner and thought it advantageous to be on her good side. She is also lucky that the opposition is in disarray. The calls for an early election to give her a mandate are silenced by the fact that the Tories are 8% ahead in the polls and would win if one was called today. The opposition has muted calls for an election because with it’s current state, Labour would probably do worse than in 2015.
So our new PM has been extremely lucky in the past to get where she is today. But her luck will be over now that she is PM. She will be under a level of scrutiny she has never faced before. She will finally have to make her opinions known, no more sitting on the fence. She will be responsible for failures beyond her control, every government failure is hers and she won’t be able to place responsibility on uncooperative adversaries. Ken Clarke called her a “bloody difficult woman”, highlighting the fact she struggles to work with others and delegate, something she will now have to do every waking hour. She will need to make friends in parliament and overseas, she will need to woo MPs who supported Leave and are sceptical about her leadership. She will need to deliver on her promises to be the strong negotiator she has claimed to be despite little evidence to support this. And her premiership will be defined by how she manages Brexit. Luck will not be of much use here; it will be down to her and those in her team to make Brexit work in the face of those who are feeling pessimistic about our prospects.
It took 3 years for her to get rid of Abu Qatada. Once Article 50 is invoked she will have 2 years to prepare exit. She’ll need more than luck now. I’m not feeling confident.