Loveless loyalty to Theresa May comes at a price for the Tories
Endurance testifies to PM’s tactical artfulness and personal fibre, but Brexit has been the real career-saver
British prime minister Theresa May, accompanied by her chief of staff Gavin Barwell, leaves 10 Downing Street for the Houses of Parliament in London on Monday. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images
In 2017, Theresa May did not just flunk a general election of her own calling, she then misjudged her “victory” speech so much that she had to re-give it hours later, with added self-awareness. The British prime minister’s survival to the end of the summer, never mind the year, was fanciful. She could now plausibly see out the decade.
Her endurance testifies to her tactical artfulness and personal fibre, but Brexit has been the real career-saver. As long as the process goes on, neither side of her Conservative party has an incentive to remove her.
Remainers (really soft Leavers) fear her replacement by an ideologue who will force the hardest of exits. Leavers fear her removal would bring chaos, electoral defeat to the Labour opposition and a chance of no exit at all. Some also tardily recognise that “negotiation” with an entity as large as the EU is a one-sided affair, and would rather let May make the concessions they told us were unnecessary in the first place.
Each side suspects her to be nine-tenths loyal to the other, but each also prefers her to a 10-tenths version. This is game theory at its coldest; loyalty at its most loveless. The question is the cost to the Conservatives of her ongoing presence.
Without a strong leader, there is no Leviathan to impose order on the Tories’ internal hostilities. When 11 of them voted against the government on one of Brexit’s procedural matters last week, the retribution from colleagues went as far as incitement to their removal by local activists. The Europe question has been fouling the atmosphere in the party for 30 years, but capable leaders with a national mandate have achieved some veneer of civility for extended periods. May has no chance. If anything, she has to play one side against the other to survive.
Her leadership also creates a more strategic problem for the party: that of its limited appeal. As well as a Labour breakthrough, 2017 was, in a sense, David Cameron’s Revenge. May had distanced herself from her predecessor with a lack of grace that can only be excused by superior electoral performance. Instead, she squandered the parliamentary majority he had won just two years earlier. Tories must understand how.
Cameron’s political insights as a new leader in 2005, a year that now feels for all its recency like a prelapsarian Eden, retain most of their wisdom. The Conservatives can count on rural and county England for support (more so now with the gradual eclipse of the UK Independence party). Their prospects of overall victory therefore hinge on their reputation among the urban, the young and the non-white. Tories need not match Labour’s performance here, but they cannot be entirely uncompetitive either.
In her defence, the Conservatism of 2005 was never viable for May: there is not enough money or trust in markets now. But with her initial hardness on Brexit and her anti-cosmopolitan tone, she went out of her way to forfeit segments of the electorate that Cameron had spent a decade charming. Those early months have defined her and the Conservatives in their eyes.
Pedigree of resistance
For all her pedigree of resistance to her party’s extremes, May allowed herself to fall in with the kind of conservatives who combine chest-beating patriotism with dislike of their country in its present form. The party has shown a stern face to the cities that will not be soon forgotten. This cannot be blamed on advisers. High office is an audit of its occupant. It brings out what is actually there. May is a rural conservative hardened by six years as an interior minister. She cannot suddenly become a modernist with impeccable insight into, say, a student in Leeds with continental classmates and aspirations to a London career.
No, if the Tories stick with May, they must reckon with the electoral price. Each day of May’s leadership calcifies the Tories’ bad image in urban Britain. Try as she sincerely does to fix it, she lacks understanding of these voters. They were never her people. It is easy to think of alternatives who could attempt a rapprochement. Ruth Davidson, who leads the Scottish Tories, is unavailable, for now. Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, is highly available, if tainted. Amber Rudd manages to be home secretary in a moderate style.
The internal strife she is too weak to stop is one cost of May’s survival. She undid a decade’s work in a matter of months and does not know how to get it going again.
This year brought another landmark. It was the 30th anniversary of the last time a Conservative leading from the right (Margaret Thatcher) won a majority. When Tories tire of May’s miraculous acts of escapology and choose her successor, they might remember that fact. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017.