Theresa May: where did it all go wrong?

A year ago, the Prime Minister was invincible. She was faced on the left by an ageing, seemingly out of touch, old socialist who was under constant assault from his own party on every possible issue. On the right was a slightly mad bloke from Liverpool who lied about his doctorate, whether he’d been at Hillsborough, and presumably on whatever form he signed saying he was capable of leading a political party. And as for the centre ground, it was occupied by a mild-mannered Christian whose credentials as a ‘Liberal’ were dubious at best, and who’s only talking point was how much he loved referendums.

There was speculation Labour would be annihilated – May would win over 400 seats, the Conservatives would be in power until the late 2020s, even the 2030s… Now she is faced by a Labour Party whose conference was the victory lap of a party who are certain they’ll be in government after the next election, a Liberal Democratic Party led by a veteran leader with ministerial experience unrivalled in his party and a history of competence and prescience, and even by a cadre within her own party who seem desperate to dethrone her. Forced to sack two cabinet members within just a week of one another, and with her chief ally and loyal deputy Damian Green under suspicion of serious sexual misconduct, Theresa May seems to be the most vulnerable Prime Minister since John Major. How did a woman once seen as an Iron Lady for the 21st century become the Tory Gordon Brown?

To fully understand what is now happening to Theresa May, we have to look back at why she seemed so powerful in the first place. Why were the Conservatives, just a month after effectively ousting David Cameron at the end of a civil war over Brexit, able to secure a 16 percent lead over Labour in some polls? What was it that made Theresa May so palatable not just to traditional Tories, but also to the white working-class voters who had propelled the Leave campaign (and UKIP) to dazzling success? It seems likely to have been a combination of the following factors; firstly, May seemed perfectly positioned to lead Britain through Brexit – a Remainer with clearly Eurosceptic instincts, she could garner support from both sides of the aforementioned civil war, and seemed to voters to be more than just an ideologue mindlessly pursuing Brexit at all costs (however laughable that may seem now).

How did a woman once seen as an Iron Lady for the 21st century become the Tory Gordon Brown?

But May also represented an oxymoronic combination of continuity and radical change. She was a firm hand on the tiller as one of the longest serving Home Secretary’s in British history, with a proven record in a department normally seen as a poisoned chalice, but she wasn’t just “Continuity Cameronism”. May (guided by the now reviled Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill) was promising a new programme of social and economic renewal for the disenfranchised. Hers was a brand of “Red Toryism” designed to appeal directly to the Labour Leave vote, which she knew traditional Conservatives voters would have no choice to back – the other option, after all, was Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, or UKIP plunging, as it was, into insignificance.

Having remembered just why May was so popular makes it feel shocking all over again to recount the reasons why she fell from grace; but, with hindsight, they are abundant. For one thing, May’s ability to actually win over the working class was always dubious. Yes, maybe working class voters might express interest in voting Conservatives in polls, but this was not like voting Leave; for many tribal alignment (easy to ignore in a referendum which was, to some extent, transpartisan) was simply too strong to ever stomach voting Conservative, hence why, when it came down to it, the new “Tory working class” failed to manifest itself.

Secondly, May did seemingly everything she could to alienate her party’s traditional support base, driving away elderly rural Tories on the one hand by threatening their ironclad pensions, and younger urban free-trading economic liberals on the other by pushing for a hard Brexit at any cost and promising to bring back, of all things, fox hunting. This left her without the Conservative’s key constituencies on two fronts, as well as without many of her backbenchers. In appealing to the working class (and perhaps more narrowly to the UKIP-voting working class) May made a gamble which disastrously failed to pay off. What’s more, May’s promise not to hold an early election followed by her dramatic U-Turn did nothing to help her credibility; if the Prime Minister would lie about thatfor political advantage, what else would she be happy to ‘change her mind’ on?

It is hard to say whether the current wave of sexual and political scandals would have weakened May so dramatically if she had done as well as expected in June’s election, but it’s doubtful. Such scandals tend to knock the confidence out of weak governments (see the swathe of devastating scandals which afflicted the dying days of Major’s government), whereas under strong governments they tend to be little more than a momentary embarrassment as they were for Thatcher – a quick resignation, an official apology, and then the government carries on reshaping the country. The crisis now engulfing the Conservatives is a symptom, rather than the cause, of the weakness of a party now doubting a leader who has successively alienated both the electorate and her own colleagues.

In appealing to the working class, May made a gamble which disastrously failed to pay off

All of these factors have mounted to create chaos in the government. The Prime Minister is weak and fighting for her political survival, and she survives only because there is no one strong enough to remove her – not the perpetually gaffe-prone BoJo, nor the increasingly hated ‘spreadsheet Phil’. Only David Davis has the clout and the authority to seize power, but he seems keener to retire as soon as possible. Theresa May has squandered the chance to reshape the country to her own liking, the chance of a political lifetime to gain political hegemony as your opponents descend into infighting, as Thatcher did before her. Now her failure has reunited her opponents around the hope of victory, and shattered both her party and the electorate’s confidence in her ability to govern. So much for a strong and stable government in the national interest.