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All opinion pieces boil down to two headlines: “it’s the end of the world as we know it” and “don’t get carried away.” The tabloids incite hysteria, indeed their business models would collapse if they did not. In their rare moments of sobriety, the sober pundits of the serious press sigh, and tell us not to worry because continuity always trumps change.
One might think, after 12 months when history has more than lived up to its billing of “one damn thing after another,” the time for sobriety has long passed. Yet behind discussions of Theresa May’s coming victory there lies a complacent thought that she has no real agenda for change. According to this reading, May is asking for a blank cheque at this election but has no idea what she would like to write on it.
You can reach the wrong conclusion for all the right reasons, and there is much truth in the notion that our prime minister is as blank as any cheque. Wooden and clumsy, May has no vitality. Like a jobsworth middle manager, she repeats the corporate line. Like a snowflake student activist, she cannot handle free debate.
Above all else, she has no guiding idea. The reason why she cannot answer hard questions is that nothing flows from being Theresa May. Margaret Thatcher had a Cold War capitalist ideology that she used to cope with whatever crises history threw at her. Tony Blair had his Atlanticist attachment to American power, and determination to modernise Britain. May appears to have nothing. There is no Mayism. There are no Mayites. The intellectuals and think tanks previous prime ministers carried with them to define their ideas and refine their policies are nowhere to be seen.
“Theresa Maybe,” the Economist called her. “The risk-averse May will win her mandate,” said my own newspaper the Observer. “The question will remain: a mandate for what?” It’s a good question. But don’t assume the soothing reply that a Whitehall on auto-pilot will carry on as before, because that misses the political revolution in Britain.
For the first time in nearly 30 years, the right is united and voting as one bloc. The great split over the European Union has healed, or at least been patched up well enough to see the Conservative Party through this election. Divisions over Europe brought down Thatcher. They tore apart John Major’s premiership and made the Conservatives look so ridiculous it took them from 1997 until 2015 to regain office alone.
I can’t pre-empt the result of this election, but it is clear that, along with a large group of disgusted Labour supporters, the overwhelming majority of Ukip’s four million voters have gone to May. Brexit might have betrayed Britain’s best interests, but there can be no doubt that it has been in the best interests of the Tories. Where we once had a Conservative and Unionist party, we now have a Conservative and Ukip party. The united right can secure more than the 40 per cent of the vote needed to win a majority for years to come, particularly after it redraws constituency boundaries in its favour.
“It’s a nice thought that the prime minister has called the election to free herself from the 50 or so hard right Tory MPs, but where is the evidence for it?”
Moderate men and women projecting their hopes onto the blank screen of the prime minister’s face don’t understand the nature of the new Conservative Party. Does she secretly want continuity rather than change? It’s a nice thought that she has called the election to free herself from the 50 or so hard right Tory MPs who can stymie her ability to compromise with the EU. But where is the evidence for it? She has never indicated that she wants to protect British jobs and living standards by keeping us in the single market. When she was Home Secretary she put controlling immigration above all else. Throughout her short premiership, whenever the Daily Mail has told her to back down—on business rates, self-employed taxes and the now-forgotten hopes of soft Brexit—she has backed down. Liberals were so relieved that Boris Johnson, Andrea Leadsom or another dangerous incompetent did not become prime minister last summer that even now they do not understand who May is and what her supporters want.
If May compromised and agreed to some degree of free movement and accepted a limited role for EU law, she would tear her coalition to pieces. The Tory press would scream “stab in the back,” Ukip would be in business again. May is the right’s prisoner. She gives every indication of being a willing prisoner, who has locked herself up and thrown away the key. But she is still in its custody.
I’ve almost managed to reach the end of this piece without using the word “landslide.” Obviously, after all we have been through, we shouldn’t trust the polls, and the Tory victory may not be as crushing as they predict. But if there is a landslide, remember that it will be a personal triumph for May. Where her critics see a vacuous cliché monger, millions of voters see a reassuringly down to earth Englishwoman who has no time for fancy theories but just wants to get on with the job the Brexit vote gave her. And because she is so unaffectedly and unashamedly English, she will have no trouble rallying patriotic sentiment. The right will blame the suffering a hard Brexit will bring on wicked foreigners “punishing Britain.” The spirit of 1940 will be upon us. Britain will once again be facing a hostile continent and those who point out the lies and blunders of the Brexit movement will be traitors rather than truth tellers.
I suppose the observable historical fact that hubris eventually destroys all over-mighty prime ministers offers a small consolation. But look at how long it takes. Thatcher was PM for 11 years before the poll tax and her decision to launch the Tory civil war over the EU with her Bruges speech persuaded her party to dump her. The Tories still won the next election and governed for five more years. Blair was PM for a decade until his support for George W Bush provoked Labour to drop him. It hung on until 2010.
By this reckoning, May can stay until 2026 or 2027, if she wishes, and the Tories can carry on until some time around 2030. Unless we find a plausible opposition, and quickly, we will see the end of our world as we know it.
Where will Theresa May’s surprise ballot leave the government, the opposition and a divided country? Join us for our big election debate on the 6th of June 2017. Tom Clark, Prospect’s editor, will be joined by Nick Cohen, Matthew Parris and Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit.