Theresa May is strong and stable – until you test her

UK Politics: The prime minister’s wobbles bode badly for Britain’s prospects in Brexit negotiations

The most important biographical fact about Theresa May is not her Anglicanism, her middle-classness or her sex. More tellingly, she had never served as Britain's opposition leader or chancellor of the exchequer before she became its prime minister.

Those two jobs, which most of her predecessors had done at least one of as a tour of duty for the premiership, acquaint a politician with the full spectrum of work undertaken by the state: the loftiest geopolitics, the technical morass of welfare, the producer interests in healthcare and education.

May’s pedigree is a six-year immersion in the Home Office – a narrow department even before criminal justice fell out of its remit in 2007 – and some journeyman portfolios in opposition. She had never done a business-facing job.

On the life-and-death matters of crime, terror and espionage, no recent prime minister has sounded more authoritative. On other subjects, none has shown more nervousness. A lot of government is alien to her. She knows it. Increasingly, we know it too.


On Monday, May retreated from her second big idea in as many months. Both had to do with money, not the existential work of an interior minister. The increase in national insurance charges that she announced and then withdrew under criticism in April constituted a forgivable rookie error.

The latest capitulation is worse. Last week, she came up with a flawed but constructive answer to the crisis of funding in social care. The elderly would finance their care out of their own estate upon death. The upper limit on their contribution would go but they could keep £100,000 (€116,000) for their children. In the mixed metaphors that proliferate in politics, a floor would replace a cap.

The idea turned old age into a high-stakes game of chance – die suddenly and your estate would go untouched, contract dementia and it would shrivel over time – but it confronted voters with the principle that things must be paid for and challenged the Conservative cult of inheritance. May made it central to her election manifesto. Her self-image as a firm leader hinged on her fidelity to this brave, contentious idea.

Denial and recrimination

A few days of popular disquiet and the cap is back. If May did not know that old people feel attached to their asset base, she was derelict. If she did and (admirably) resolved to face them down, then her resolve does not amount to much. Colleagues who defended her proposal in public, lobby interests who fought it and any EU negotiators tuning in from the continent will infer the same lesson: this prime minister is strong and stable, until you test her.

In politics, a change of mind is always a “U-turn”, but that image assumes a certain grace of movement. Cars reverse direction smoothly. This government does it with denial and recrimination. “Nothing has changed,” she said on Monday, like an Iraqi information minister playing down the fall of Baghdad even as American tanks trundle into town. For a moment, there was panic. For a moment, strength and stability looked like elephantine ponderousness.

None of this matters now as the election is safe. Her poll lead has “collapsed” to the low double-digits and, if social care is a mess, the ultimate problem is an unrealistic public, not her.

The real worry concerns the future under this government. How many more times will it miscalculate and under-prepare, and on what stage? The complex work of EU exit starts in June. The pressure will make the election campaign feel like the non-event it is. The breadth of the work will take May beyond her comfort zone to the widest possible horizon of subjects.

For all the thought-pieces devoted to a new-ish prime minister – “Who is the real Theresa May?” – the question is no longer what this government stands for but whether it is any good. Or at least whether it is good enough, given the work ahead. The philosophic contents of “Mayism”, and its supposed break with Thatcherism, seems a less pressing conversation than it did last week.

Most prime ministers live to see their greatest strength reinterpreted as their greatest flaw. Margaret Thatcher’s conviction became her brusqueness. Tony Blair’s charisma became his skill at deception. David Cameron’s lack of dogma became his tactical, game-playing shallowness. And May’s reticence will become her self-doubt.

Right now, we attribute her terse, rehearsed statements to a clever strategic ruse or an endearing, low-key Englishness that hints at several fathoms of hidden depth. In time, we might put it down to a simple lack of confidence, as though she knew the reality of her premiership before we did.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017