Theresa May will have to work more collaboratively with her cabinet. Photo: Victoria Jones - WPA Pool/Getty Images

May plummets to victory: just how did she squander her majority?

The dilemma she failed to resolve about the Conservative Party will now haunt it for a long time to come
June 20, 2017

An election campaign is like an X-ray into the soul of a political leader. There is nowhere to hide from the searing media scrutiny and the public gaze. Day by day, a politician’s character, instincts, beliefs and resilience are revealed to the electorate on a million screens. Theresa May was exposed as brittle, passionless and indecisive and she was shown no mercy on 8th June. For all her obsessive attempts to control events, the electoral radiographer found the frailty in her political bones.

The Conservative leader may have won more votes and seats than Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn—and in the aftermath of the result, she appeared set on staying—but personally and politically she was defeated. A leader who called an unnecessary election in order to strengthen her hand in the European Union negotiations has ended up with her authority undermined and her credibility destroyed. The “hard” Brexit for which she sought a mandate was rejected, an extraordinary humiliation for a woman who only a few weeks before polling day was expecting a landslide. After a robotic acceptance speech that showed no regret for the MPs who had lost their seats or acknowledgement of her failings, few in parliament think she can survive for long.

The Tory postmortem has been characteristically brutal. One senior MP told me it was a “catastrophic error of judgment” to base the campaign around May, who is a charisma-free zone. “We are the Conservative Party,” he says. “We are not a cult.” As the results came in, one minister was quick to point the finger of blame at the top. “Everyone hoped that when she became prime minister she would relax and show a bit of personality and she just hasn’t,” he said. Political troops have reason to be loyal to their leader when they believe he or she is more popular than the tribe as a whole. That was May’s position early this year; the campaign has upended it. Now the bulk of MPs regard her as a drag on their collective popularity, and will be in a mutinous mood.

The most profound problem for May in the campaign was that she never gave any convincing explanation of why people should vote for her, beyond increasing her majority. Instead of using interviews to make her pitch to the nation, every media appearance was a defensive attempt to avoid answering the questions about what she wanted to use power for. Rather than trying to woo the voters, the Tories yet again turned to Project Fear, mounting vicious personal attacks on Corbyn and blowing the dog whistle on immigration, security and human rights. Labour, by contrast, ran a positive and optimistic campaign. Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, also benefited from an upbeat message, another contrast which reinforced the sense of May’s unremitting negativity. A former special adviser, who has been in the party since the age of 14, told me, “I really didn’t know whether to vote for it this time. A few years ago May was warning that the Conservatives were the ‘nasty party.’ Now she’s become the embodiment of the ‘nasty party.’”

The Conservative manifesto did seek to project an image of a different kind of Tory Party that would back “mainstream Britain” against corporate elites and reform-resistant public-sector professionals—an echo of the widely-praised speech May had made when she first moved into No 10, promising to stamp out “burning injustices.” But within days of the document’s publication the flagship social care policy—designed to demonstrate May’s courage—had been rewired, and it only served to highlight her flaws. The Tory leader who was supposed to be a “safe pair of hands” with an instinctive understanding of Middle England had come forward with an ill-conceived plan that infuriated her base without solving the problem of the social care system. The bunker mentality, the over-reliance on an inward-looking team of advisers, the political tin ear and the lack of empathy—all of which MPs had privately been warning about for some time—were now on full display. May compounded the problem by pretending there had been no change of heart—which made her look dishonest as well as uncertain. A prime minister who started an election campaign based on a personality cult, with a “strong and stable” mantra, ended up hiding behind the sofa on the night of the leaders’ televised debate and looking decidedly weak and wobbly: a “crushing mediocrity” in the words of one senior colleague. As one Tory peer sums it up: “She has gone from being an enigma to incompetent in a few short weeks.”

"For all her obsessive attempts to control events, the electoral radiographer found the frailty in Theresa May's political bones"
May is still in Downing Street but her credibility has been permanently damaged, with implications for the EU negotiations and domestic legislation. Other EU leaders have watched and learned just how easily the prime minister will cave in to political pressure. May has said many times that “Brexit means Brexit,” but lacking the numbers in Parliament she has lost the authority to dictate what this hollow slogan actually means. A softer exit from the EU was back on the cards, even before David Cameron emerged from the upmarket caravan in his garden to suggest that May should “listen to other parties” on Europe. There will be no choice but to listen to the concerns of the Democratic Unionists about a hard Irish border—the Tories are now dependent on them to survive—and nor can Davidson and her new band of 13 Tory MPs from Remain-voting Scotland be ignored.

May’s hold is crumbling. She will face rebellions on the Tory benches on everything from immigration policy to grammar schools and tax. MPs—who backed May begrudgingly as the dull, safe option but never warmed to her—no longer respect their boss. One former Cabinet minister said: “The lustre has absolutely come off Theresa… The problems with the campaign go right to the top and that will be remembered.” Another MP admits nobody wants a leadership contest or another election yet, but the prime minister cannot stay: “It’s a question of when to turn off the life support machine.” For George Osborne—free of any need to talk anonymously since May gleefully sacked him last year—the switch has already been flicked. She is “a dead woman walking,” he said on the Andrew Marr Show.

The truth is that the campaign has only exposed to wider audiences weaknesses that were evident to close observers from the start. Although never comfortable in admitting that she has changed her mind, May has often done so. As home secretary, she thrilled the hard right by casually talking about ditching the European Convention on Human Rights, but when the time came to write her own manifesto, it vowed to keep Britain signed up to it. In the Cameron Cabinet, she fought poisonous battles with Michael Gove (whom she has been forced to bring back to government) over terrorism. Back then, she feared his desire to “drain the swamp” could descend into a dangerous culture war; she preferred to focus on catching the crocodiles. After the recent London Bridge attack, however, May announced “enough is enough,” and suggested opening up all sorts of cultural fronts against not criminals, but the communities from which they emerge. The social care fiasco was all too reminiscent of the U-turn on increasing taxes on the self-employed—abandoned just days after being announced in the Budget. May and her team had failed to spot that it clashed with a manifesto commitment made by Cameron. Despite the prime minister’s soothing talk to the 1922 Committee about the end of austerity, many unpleasant financial decisions are set to crop up in this Parliament, and backbenchers will now have every reason to use the extra leverage that a hung Parliament affords to resist.

The backdrop to most of May’s U-turns has been a tunnel vision and a paranoid refusal to consult. The control freakery that she displayed at the Home Office never translated well into No 10: it just isn’t practical for a PM to rely, as she tried to do, on a tiny team of two. Both Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, the Tory leader’s controversial chiefs of staff, have now resigned, which only heightens the doubts—aired in private by MPs and officials for months—about what May really believes. Parachuted into the leadership after her rivals imploded last year, she arrived at the top without having to fight a leadership contest, and so from the economy to public service reform and foreign affairs, her views were unclear. Even on Brexit she was something of a mystery—a Remainer with the zeal of the pro-Brexit convert. One Tory grandee who served in the Thatcher government saw few similarities between his party’s two female leaders. “Theresa May’s more like Gordon Brown,” he said. “She was desperate to become prime minister but she didn’t know what to do when she got the job.”

Although she insists “there is no Mayism,” the Tory leader had developed a distinctive agenda, superficially at least. If Cameron wanted to detoxify the Tory Party with socially liberal policies such as gay marriage, May’s modernisation was about throwing off its reputation as the party of the rich. Describing the Tories as the “party of the workers,” she hazily promised to tackle boardroom excess. But much of this so-called “Red Toryism” was driven by Timothy—whose hero is the liberal Joseph Chamberlain—rather than May herself. “Theresa’s politics are technocratic rather than ideological,” said one official.

Her own instincts are old fashioned, even reactionary. A move away from laissez-faire economics has been combined with a Home Office approach to law and order. She infuriated the free marketeers with proposals to cap energy prices and (perhaps) put workers on boards, but she has also irritated her party’s liberal wing with her attack on the global “citizens of nowhere” and human rights laws. “The new divide is not between left and right but between liberal and authoritarian and May is proving to be an authoritarian Tory,” said one senior Conservative. “We haven’t conquered Ukip—they have conquered us.”

There has been a strong strand of what David Willetts, the former Conservative minister, calls “bring-backery”: nostalgia politics with promises to reintroduce grammar schools and fox-hunting. Both these pledges were principally symbolic. Before the election, Downing Street sources suggested that only a handful of grammar schools would be created; even that could be hard to achieve now, and hopes of a fox hunting vote have probably been thrown to the hounds. But it is significant that May clung to these favourites of the Tory right. One adviser believes the leader favours “vintage Conservatism”; this allowed Labour to present Corbyn, who is in many ways a throwback to the 1970s, as the candidate of change. Osborne turned the knife on election night, telling ITV: “If the Conservative Party sets itself against metropolitan future-looking opinion, it’s going to pay a price.”

According to Jeremy Browne, the former Liberal Democrat minister who worked with May at the Home Office: “She’s a person who likes process and rules. She feels that she’s a lonely guardian of the unfashionable unmetropolitan common sense instincts of provincial conservatism.” This is a question of style as much as of policy. When she arrived at No 10, one of May’s first acts was to install a table in her office—a signal that she intended to run a more formal government than the sofa administration of Tony Blair or the chumocracy of Cameron. Damian Green is now effectively May’s second in command; his wife Alicia Collinson was Theresa’s tutorial partner at Oxford. He points out that May studied Geography not PPE and so spent her time collecting rain samples at 6am. Geographers “don’t discuss political theory, they go out and get evidence and on the basis of that evidence they construct what needs to be done,” he said.
"May feels that she’s a lonely guardian of the unfashionable unmetropolitan common sense instincts of provincial conservatism”
There is in the Tory leader’s mind an explicit contrast between herself and what she sees as the dilettante metropolitan liberalism of Boris Johnson and Osborne. If politics is divided into Roundheads and Cavaliers, then the prime minister—a vicar’s daughter with a puritanical streak—is a Roundhead who is determined to differentiate herself from the wealthy public schoolboy Cavaliers. She has told aides that they should not expect a peerage when they leave—“just a biscuit and if they’ve worked very hard it might be a Jaffa Cake.” Instead of chillaxing with TV box-sets in the evening, like her predecessor, she reads red boxes late into the night, sometimes until 2am. She doesn’t invite friends to play tennis at Chequers, preferring to spend the weekends in her constituency, shopping in Waitrose or attending church. Last summer she insisted on flying British Airways to Switzerland for her annual walking holiday, even though her officials suggested that she travel on a budget airline as Cameron did. “She wasn’t going to fake it by going on EasyJet,” a friend of hers told me at the time.

But for some, this distancing of herself from the privileged wing of the Tory Party has been obsessive. One former cabinet minister says: “A lot of what she does is driven by a determination to say, we are not like Cameron or Osborne. It’s chippy. She clearly felt she was looked down on and she’s a great one for bearing grudges.” After becoming leader she could have been magnanimous, but there was a hint of vindictiveness in her purge of the public schoolboys—as when she told Osborne she did not appreciate “political games.” She has frequently slapped down Johnson, whom she instinctively mistrusts. Those she has snubbed are not in the mood to forgive her now. “Everyone says she’s quite nice but I don’t think she is, there’s a very great lack of generosity as a human being,” says one senior Tory.

Loyalty is the quality that the prime minister has always valued above almost all else. One minister explains: “Thatcher chose people on ideological grounds—they were ‘one of us’—and Cameron had people from his social set, but May wants to be surrounded by people she can trust. She takes a long time to trust people.” Cautious and hard-working, she developed a protective shell in her years at the Home Office. When things get difficult, she retreats into the bunker. The danger is that she gets cut off from reality. Then what starts as determination ends up as stubbornness—strength morphs into vulnerability. As one MP put it: “Norman Tebbit said that the longer you are in No 10 the smaller the windows become. Theresa has been at the top of government for so long that for her the windows are already small.”

The prime minister has always kept herself apart from her colleagues. Her friends in the party are few, and she does not have a clear enough ideology to have ideological allies. Having called an election for no cogent reason other than to expand her power, she was left diminished, and the question of why she ever wanted that power remains unanswered. She is, transparently, a caretaker—reduced to telling her MPs that she’d get them out of the mess that she’d got them into, staying on only for as long as they wanted. In truth, she will survive, at best, only for as long as they fear another election more than they fear serving under her.

May’s manifesto gave mixed signals on what today’s Tories are all about. Nostalgia? Flag-waving patriotism? Muscular intervention in markets and society to help the hard pressed? She probably never knew how she wanted to balance the three, and now she has squandered the chance to set it. She may not last long, but the dilemma she failed to resolve about the Conservative Party will haunt it for a long time to come. The more immediate prospect is of the great control freak losing control. Cabinet ministers are asserting themselves, and there is talk of leadership plots. “Clearly things have to change in the management style pretty quickly otherwise you will see people walking out,” one senior Tory told me. May is limping on but after the weaknesses revealed by the X-ray of the election campaign her enemies are already waiting with the surgeon’s knife.