The dilemma she failed to resolve about the Conservative Party will now haunt it for a long time to comeby Rachel Sylvester / June 20, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.’”