In 1979 Joe Clark led his Progressive Conservative Party of Canada to its first election victory in 16 years. Two years later, in opposition again, one third, (33.5) per cent of his party members supported a “review of his leadership”, i.e., a vote on whether to continue supporting him.
By the next convention, in 1983, this figure had fallen only slightly, to 33.1 per cent. Consequently Clark resigned, fought the ensuing leadership election, and lost. Ever since, Canadians have questioned why he felt he needed to do this. As Prince Charles once famously asked him, wasn’t 66% support good enough?
He has always responded (although through others) that if as many as one-third of the members didn’t want him, as he had no mandate to lead the party the way he wanted. To prevent this 33% becoming a majority, he demanded they either sack him or back him, and eventually they took the first option.
Now compare with Theresa May’s UK Conservative MPs which held an internal vote of confidence in her leadership. She has survived – but by 200 votes to 117. Only 63% of her own MPs supported her staying on, and as has been pointed out, most of those 200 actually work for her, as ministers, junior ministers, parliamentary private secretaries of ministers and the like. So it can be argued that they were voting for their own jobs, not her.
Margaret Thatcher had been Conservative leader for 15 years when she was challenged to the 1990 leadership contest. She won a majority of the votes, and was only four votes short of getting 15% more than her nearest challenger, and thus winning outright and ending the contest.
Consequently she pledged to fight on until she gained that outright victory. But she nevertheless resigned the following day, when her ministers told her one by one that she would not win a second ballot, and it would serve her legacy better to fall on her sword.
Thatcher’s successor, John Major, forced a leadership contest himself in 1995, for the same reasons Clark did, and gained 66% of the vote, and enough of a margin over his only challenger to keep his job. But he had been prepared to resign if he had not received 215 votes, even if he had won the contest. He gained 218, but this made the rest of his leadership tenuous, and contributed to his party’s landslide defeat in the 1997 election, its worst performance since 1832.
So what on earth should Theresa May, the vicar’s daughter, do now? In any other scenario, she would resign. Unlike Thatcher, she is not the standard bearer for a new type of revolutionary Conservatism, surrounded by fanatical supporters prepared to die for this cause. Unlike Major, she is not the person anointed to bear that standard into a new era, as David “Dave” Cameron has left no legacy apart from pretending to be different to Thatcher and then adopting her old policies for purely ideological reasons, which bear little relation to present day realities.
But May is carrying on as if nothing has happened, running to the EU to try and renegotiate the Brexit deal and claiming the only way is her way. She cannot really believe that, as she knows she cannot get her Brexit deal through parliament. So why is she clinging on to the premiership in the face of certain humiliation, and a very probable place in history as the worst Prime Minister the UK has ever had?
Plus or minus nought
The reason is simple: Theresa no longer cares. Not long after she was appointed, newspapers were already reporting that she was “fed up” with being Prime Minister.
Like Lord Rosebery, a nineteenth century holder of that title, May has come to believe that politics is an “evil-smelling bog” she has to get out of as soon as possible. But being forced out is better than walking away, when you have climbed as high as she has, and are expected to behave as if you deserve to have done.
May has spent her whole political career hedging her bets. She has described herself on several occasions as a “liberal conservative”. It was she who famously referred to her own party as the “narrow and nasty party” after it lost power. Nevertheless she has faithfully supported non-liberal Conservative leaders she allegedly didn’t agree with, and used her self-proclaimed “liberalism” to paint this as “party loyalty” or “pragmatism” rather than personal ambition or lack of principle.
Similarly she has made much of her background as a state school rather than a private school graduate. She often neglects to mention that this background was imposed upon her, when her private school became part of the state system without her having any say in the matter. But if she is criticised for being part of a party which has traditionally supported private education, and the unfair advantages this is supposed to give people, she can say this criticism can’t apply to her, regardless of the votes she casts for private education for those who can afford it.
The same Theresa May who was lampooned for endlessly repeating the phrase, “strong and stable government” in such a robotic manner at the 2017 election has played the system for years by being prepared to be weak and wobbly. Her premiership has been so dire because her only interest has been playing internal Conservative Party games at the expense of the UK population – deliberately appointing unfit people like Boris Johnson so they can ruin themselves by ruining the country in the process.
May has risen to her present position by winning these games. Now she is losing them, she can use the same arguments to excuse herself. In her own mind, her party doesn’t like her because she isn’t really one of them, as she has always said, regardless of her years of faithful membership. She may not be able to bring herself to walk away like Cameron, but if she is pushed out she can say it is because she has a different vision. However Theresa seems incapable of understanding that she would never have got into this situation if she had actually had a different vision.
Sell their souls and votes for nought
May has only 317 MPs, rather than the 326 required to hold a parliamentary majority, because she called the 2017 election from a position of overwhelming strength and then lost the majority her party had previously held. Despite her reputation crumbling away to nothing during that campaign, she refused to resign, on the grounds that, having created the mess, she had a responsibility to get her colleagues out of it.
Since then she has watched her flagship policy, pursuing Brexit, alienate increasing numbers of voters on both sides of that argument. The Remainers don’t want Brexit at all, but many, and particularly if they are Conservative MPs, would put up with it if they can present some credible benefit it might bring to their electorates. The Leavers don’t like May’s deal with the EU because it will mean abiding by EU rules for years to come without having a say in those rules, and this is not the Brexit they thought they were voting for.
A more competent leader would find a way to rally both sides behind her deal. May cannot do that because she relies on repeating platitudes and sound bites she claims she doesn’t really believe in herself. If she really believed in the excuses she makes for herself, she would not be a member of her own government. Instead she martyrs herself daily, in her own understanding, and is not interested in plugging the holes in her sinking ship.
Brexit is being presented as an intractable problem which is poisoning British political life and giving the EU some much-needed moral high ground. However, other Prime Ministers have faced similar problems in their own times.
Labour leaders have always had to find ways of satisfying both the radical neo-Marxists and the paternalistic social democrats amongst their MPs, and then selling the compromise package to uncommitted voters who traditionally don’t trust either. Conservatives were once as split over Enoch Powell’s charismatic racist rhetoric as they are now over Europe. The third largest party in the present parliament, the Scottish Nationalists, were led for over twenty years by Alex Salmond, who was expelled from the party in 1982 alongside many other members who have since held senior positions within it.
Theresa cannot lead because she cannot find anything to believe in after a lifetime in this “evil-smelling bog”. Her only question is how she can survive long enough to get out on her own terms. But to do this she has to turn the argument away from Brexit into other areas, where she can rouse more support, and she is incapable of doing this either.
Big fat zero
Theresa May has no domestic policy achievements to her name. She supported all the ideological austerity of the Cameron years, even when it didn’t achieve what it was supposed to, on the grounds that Labour had promised even worse austerity measures had it been re-elected – another Theresa excuse.
On taking office, she announced an “end to austerity”. Her premiership should therefore be about social and infrastructural improvement. But if that has happened, no one has noticed.
The UN has condemned her government for its treatment of the poor and vulnerable. There are no increases in housing, investment and jobs. The government claims that more people are in work now than ever, but as the population has increased, and people need products and services, which should happen anyway in a G20 country. Rather than growth, the abiding images of Theresa’s UK are of people in decent jobs having to use food banks to survive, and local authorities cutting every service they can because she says the country can’t afford what everyone once took for granted.
Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives eventually disappeared because subsequent leaders offended both “left” and “right” and offered no alternative, just as Theresa has done. Clark is no longer in politics as a result.
But Clark remains a revered elder statesman of Canada, having much more public support now than when he was Prime Minister. This is because he has been able to put clear water between himself and the parties of today: he represents something which is no longer there, and thus, by default, is a man of principle and non-partisan reason, even though his brief government was voted out due to his broken promises.
Theresa has always tried to present herself as the same sort of animal as Clark. But now it is only a matter of time before she is forced out, it is inconceivable that she will achieve the same status. Theresa’s principles won’t be elevated by their absence because she has never displayed any.
Excuses which prevent her having to have principles are not good enough now, when the future of her country is at stake and the rest of the world ignores her. Nor will they be good enough in future, when she has escaped as the embodiment of all she claims not to be.
Nothing in, nothing out
Unfortunately Theresa May is discovering the one truth politicians never tell. However ideological a politician may be, they all accept a distinction between “ideals” and “the real world”. Even the most seemingly theoretical of leaders, like the aforementioned Mrs. Thatcher, will take the most pragmatic course of action at the end of the day, believing “the real world” to be superior.
But at the end of the day, ideals like “truth” and “justice” and “proper conduct” are not merely unattainable abstracts, which can be trumped by pragmatic action. They have a real meaning and a real, practical effect on people who ignore them. If you upset the local bully they will come to your door. If you do as the local bully does, eventually everyone else will come to your door.
Theresa May has run away from everything all her life. Like her fellow Conservative, the disgraced author Jeffrey Archer, she has climbed the ladder by playing the system and avoiding reality.
This is not uncommon amongst politicians, who have to be able to convince electors that the world is what they say it is, rather than what those electors think or see. But when the system bites back, you need to have some principle, some idea, to cling on to for your own survival, and Theresa has spent her career refusing to have one.
Winning this internal confidence vote means Theresa can be forced out with some dignity. If she didn’t want that, she would strike some new path in her present role and take her accusers on. But all she can say is the same meaningless things she did when the public discovered the real Theresa when she kept saying “strong and stable”.
May doesn’t resign because she isn’t principled enough to do it, and knows that. She has always thought this some sort of inverted virtue, and tried to persuade the public of the same thing. Maybe she thought that, as a fundamentally good person, she was above the laws that affect the rest of humanity for all the right reasons. But that will not help her when she tries to find a reason to be outside the system she has always played, and justify why she has led her country into the same abyss.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.