Power is a fickle lover. Twelve months ago, Mrs May bestrode British politics, the last woman standing after an orgy of Conservative bloodletting. Today, she is besieged.
To Remainers, the PM is a wilful puppet of hard-Brexit ideologues; to Brexiteers, a weak leader putting the great escape in jeopardy; to Corbynistas, a heartless second-rate Thatcher; and to comedians, a gift.
Yet ask most normal people and you find some sympathy for the woman who is still the Prime Minister.
Yes, terrible mistakes have been made. An election called on hubris, unjustified to the politically exhausted public, and contested with a laughably poor campaign backfired.
More broadly, those on both sides of the Brexit debate have legitimate grievances about the way the process has been run, Number 10’s domestic agenda appears to have been more bark than bite, and the tin-eared response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy was abominable.
Criticism, however, is easy. Governing is hard. The Prime Minister inherited a party, and a country, deeply divided on the question of Britain’s place in Europe and, therefore, the world. With negligible planning time, she was tasked with uniting warring factions to take on the most complex and contentious political challenge probably since the war.
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Simultaneously, her inbox included an increasingly dangerous geopolitical environment, a weakening economy, ever-present terrorist threats and, opposing her, an unexpectedly impressive and effective opposition leader in Jeremy Corbyn.
And she has got some things right. Her maiden speech as PM in Downing Street was a brave, powerful and accurate critique of Britain’s ills: inequality, stagnating living standards, and a growing sentiment that there’s nothing the government does for normal folks. Since then, she has just about kept the show on the road: the Conservatives are more united than commentators would like to think; the economy has so far weathered Brexit-induced volatility; she didn’t actually lose the election; and she has stayed in Number 10 when she could have easily said ‘sod it’ and left the mess to someone else.
Likely, her tenure will not last much longer: hung parliaments rarely survive more than three years and the Conservatives will not let her lead them into another election. If courageous, though, she will see this as an opportunity: a thirty-six-month window to build a legacy.
The person who once had the guts to become the Conservative Party’s first female Chairman, to hold the ‘nasty party’ mirror up to her own colleagues, to tell hard truths to the Police Federation, and to become only the second ever woman Prime Minister should rediscover that fortitude.
With no more elections to fight herself, she would do well to put political game-playing aside (she is not good at it anyway) and focus on the job. Running Britain’s government is a privilege few will ever enjoy and she should make the most of it, returning to those issues she enumerated outside of Downing Street last summer: decent pay for decent work, home ownership, gender and racial equality, and opportunity for all.
This should be Theresa May’s mission. She will have plenty of time to lament her mistakes in retirement. First, she can take this opportunity to turn the ship around.
Benjamin Clayton is a Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He was previously Chief of Staff of the British government’s National Infrastructure Commission.