The day after the British people voted to leave the EU David Cameron announced he was stepping down “by October”. He assumed it would take that long for his Conservative Party to find a successor. When a new leader came about sooner than anticipated, Cameron fled at the earliest opportunity rather than finishing up his remaining business. He has not offered to serve his successor, and she has not asked him to.
Theresa May has been in office since July 13th. This was the earliest date at which Her Majesty The Queen was able to meet both her and Cameron in the palace, and go through the formal process of being informed by Cameron that he could no longer fulfil his commission and that Mrs. May now had “The Confidence of The House”. Cameron then went out of the back door and May came in the front door and kissed hands with her. Thus Theresa May became the UK’s second female Prime Minister, without the public being consulted on the subject, as is usual in such cases.
The first female Prime Minister was of course Margaret Thatcher. May will naturally be compared with her fellow Conservative. She herself points out that this is a false comparison, because she has different ideas. But she doesn’t say how they are different: we are left to infer for ourselves, on the basis of Thatcher’s bad reputation, that May is somehow more acceptable.
Thatcher was a highly ideological leader, fond of finding self-fulfilling intellectual arguments and then pursuing them rigidly, more like a Communist than a Conservative. Thatcher’s excesses, and her successors’ reliance on her legacy, famously prompted May herself to describe her own party as “narrow and nasty” when it was out of power back in 2002.
May is a more traditional Conservative, one of the generations of women who organise the meetings, make the tea and sandwiches, tell the candidates off and perform what people in the advertising industry call the “Old Grey Edna Test,” acting as the sounding board for bright ideas which haven’t been tested on the public. All that should make her an extension of Cameron’s vision of a modernised, more broadly-based party.
Unfortunately the world has moved on since Cameron rose to the Conservative leadership. The little old ladies of the Conservative Party are not what they once were. If you thought Thatcher was bad, wait till you see Theresa May.
Dyed in the wool before the wool was there
There are three types of Conservative voter. There are those who support the party on particular issues, as they arise, and vote against it at other times. There are those who are convinced by the party ideologically, and vote for it faithfully unless they feel the party has let them down. Then there are those who don’t vote Conservative but are Conservative: they support and join the party because people of their class, connections, income level and ancestry do, in the same way posh kids play the violin and street kids play the guitar.
May is one of the last group. She is the daughter of a Church of England vicar, and was born in 1956 when that church was often characterised as “the Conservative Party at prayer.” She makes much of the fact that she attended a comprehensive school as well as a grammar school, but this only came about because her grammar school was forced to become comprehensive due to education reforms.
She went on to Oxford University and a career in banking, again typical accomplishments of someone from her background, who wants to conserve the world which already exists because it serves them and their friends well enough.
May is from the portion of the middle class who automatically expect to be listened to because they are somebody. In less developed countries this social segment is not the “guardian of democracy” it is often held up to be in the West. Rather it is the greatest threat to democracy: if governments don’t do what these people want, regardless of what the rest of the people voted for, ways are found to remove them.
Theresa May gives a voice to those who feel they have more right to be heard than anyone else, but do not feel they have to justify having this special right. She’ll never say it, but this has been her assumption throughout her career. She wouldn’t be in parliament if she didn’t think she should automatically be heard, as she has consistently refused to actually say very much of substance.
One nation, one view
May identifies herself as a One-Nation Conservative, meaning that she supports the postwar consensus, the idea that everyone plays a part in building a common future, rather than the divisive “them and us” policies Mrs. Thatcher was famous for. However she has most recently been part of a government whose distinguishing policy was regarded by voters of all parties as Thatcherite.
The “austerity” the Conservatives deemed necessary has resulted in a frontal assault on the poorest and most vulnerable, who are being squeezed ever tighter because they are a drain on the public finances. Voters have often lost faith in all politicians, and the UK, as a consequence of such conduct, one of the reasons for the rise of UKIP and the Brexit vote.
As David Cameron’s Home Secretary May made a department derided by previous ministers as “not fit for purpose” into one which fitted all the wrong purposes. Its arbitrariness and incompetence was not reformed but harnessed to serve policy ends. For example, immigrants have long been demonised in the compliant British media simply because, unlike the people Thatcher demonised, they can’t vote against you if they don’t like it. May allowed her department’s unfit actions and processes to continue on the grounds that this was “dealing with immigration” by giving “those people” all they are fit for in the decent, democratic UK.
May represents Maidenhead, one of the most expensive places to live in the UK. It has a reputation of being fashionable and prosperous. Look round its town centre today and you see many boarded up or closing down shops, a problem May herself has tried to address. Reputation and reality are two different things, but the thrust of May’s efforts has been to maintain the town’s reputation, and thus house prices, rather than address the underlying realities which have begun to dent that reputation.
Theresa is married to Philip May, who works in finance. He is a major investor in G4S, a security firm which has a number of government contracts. Many of these were awarded, or renewed, while his wife was Home Secretary and thus the minister responsible.
If the couple were called Clinton, we would be hearing a lot more about this. We certainly should be, after Mrs. May told the G20 summit that she would be tackling corporate bad behaviour, without mentioning the contract awarding process.
Muskie’s snowflakes all over again
May became Prime Minister by winning the Conservative Party’s internal leadership election. This was conducted on the basis that the initial five candidates would be whittled down to two by a series of ballots amongst Conservative MPs, one candidate being removed in each ballot, the final two being separated by a vote by the party membership.
This is why Cameron assumed it would take until October to decide who his replacement would be. Instead, the process rapidly eliminated Liam Fox, Stephen Crabb and Michael Gove, and left May up against Andrea Leadsom, an MP with little or no public profile who had suddenly emerged as the new anti-establishment candidate.
This was a contest the Conservatives were dreading, as neither candidate was particularly popular. Fortunately Leadsom imploded by telling the press that as she had children, and May has not, this gave her more of a stake in the future than May had. She later apologised for this remark, but withdrew from the contest on July 11th because “the pressure was too great,” though she did not specify who was applying that pressure. The rules were not clear on what would happen if there were only one candidate left, but the 1922 Committee, the organisation for ordinary Conservative MPs, decided that May was the new leader and the members would have no say in this decision.
As there was no election, no one had to take a stand. No one had to present, or be bound by, any list of policies or promises. May now has the mandate she had always wanted, but couldn’t publicly ask for: to do whatever she says, and expect it to be enacted, because she represents those who expect things to happen because they say so.
You can’t hold people to account when they haven’t promised anything. Everything is set up for the sort of arbitrary rule the UK rightly condemns in other countries, whilst never recognising it could ever happen at home.
The future is buying time
Typically, May didn’t say much during the UK’s EU referendum, though she was technically on the Remain side. On being appointed PM she stated that “Brexit means Brexit”, but her first cabinet appointments indicated that she does not mean this in the way she wants her members to think.
May has appointed prominent Leave supporters to the posts where they are responsible for pursuing the negotiations, and getting the best deal possible for the UK. However it is very unlikely that any deal they broker will be acceptable to the British public or the Prime Minister. She has basically given the charlatans who made false promises enough rope to hang themselves with, to give her an excuse to get rid of them and avoid Brexit if she can.
Back in the 1980s Conservative MP John Carlisle described black people as coming from “bongo-bongo land”. He was dealt with by being sent on an official visit to Gabon, to meet that black African country’s president, Omar Bongo. Appointing Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, after his long history of offending people from every nation under the sun in print, is prompted by the same considerations. Either it will tame him or lead to his final disgrace, which will mean the end of all he is associated with, like Brexit and plotting against the leader.
May dismissed the least popular of Cameron’s ministers: austerity Chancellor George Osborne, Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan, who tried to make every school in the country privately run. These dismissals were not accompanied by a stated change of policy however. These ministers were dismissed for making the party look bad. As in the PM’s constituency, reputation is all, because that reputation is what gives the people she represents the belief that they above all must be listened to. Whether that approach can benefit anyone who doesn’t belong to those circles is another matter entirely.
Victim of others’ circumstances
May is an MP because she expects to be listened to as of right, as people of her background often do. She wanted to become Prime Minister because she thought she was qualified as of right, as Home Secretaries usually do. In recent off-camera remarks after a TV interview the man who sees himself as the High Priest of One-Nation Conservatives, coal miner’s son Kenneth Clarke, described her as a “bloody difficult woman.” This may not be a political judgment, but that is the point.
Already May is showing the colours she tries hard to pretend she doesn’t have. She has sent envoys to negotiate bilateral trade deals with the US, which she knows is a breach of EU law. The US has told her they can’t agree anything with her for this reason, but May says they should, so laws don’t matter.
She has also suggested triggering Article 50 by asking The Queen to exercise her Royal Prerogative, in other words by bypassing parliament. Whether the EU will regard this action as being “in accordance with the country’s constitutional requirements”, as the request to leave has to be, is another matter. This action is now being challenged in court, but May took little notice of court decisions when she was Home Secretary, notably in immigration matters, so is unlikely to be concerned by such trifles now she runs the country.
Theresa May knows what things maintain the reputations of her supporters. She doesn’t care what she has to do to enact them. The results might, in the end, be positive, but we will all just have to trust that, and that is not what “talking back control of the UK” was supposed to be about.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.