Almost a year to the day since she succeeded David Cameron as British prime minister, Theresa May yesterday sought to push the reset button on her premiership with a speech that restated its guiding principles. May spoke of an ambitious agenda to create a fairer society that "works for everyone, not just a privileged few". She appealed to other parties, urging them to work with her in shaping the "big decisions" needed to make sure the United Kingdom could emerge "stronger and better" from Brexit.
May's speech sought to project strength, but she finds herself in a position of exceptional weakness. A year after she strode purposefully into Downing Street, having easily seen off her rivals for the leadership, May heads a beleagured minority government whose survival depends on the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party. Her own hold on power is even more tenuous: she remains Conservative leader largely because her colleagues cannot agree on a replacement, and her speech took place against a background of renewed speculation about an imminent heave in the Tory ranks. Having called a snap election partly out of a mistaken view that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was an electoral liability, May now faces a resurgent, self-confident opposition.
That reversal of fortunes explains why May’s olive branch was immediately rebuffed. And what credit she might gain for striking a conciliatory note will be outweighed by annoyance at the overture within her own party. Her audience would be forgiven for wondering whether the Conservatives want other people’s ideas because they don’t have good ones of their own. The most problematic aspect of May’s speech, however, was her continuing pretence that Brexit can somehow make the UK better. Instead of levelling with the electorate about the pain that lies ahead, perhaps even arguing that that pain will somehow be worth it in the long run, May persists with the illusion that the British people can “seize the opportunities ahead” and “fulfil the promise of Brexit together”. By doing so she helps ensure that, when it comes, even a soft Brexit will hit her people hard.