The dissection and even derision Theresa May has been subject to since almost losing the election she unnecessarily called are in stark contrast to the peculiar lack of critical attention she received both when she first became Prime Minister and (especially) when she was Home Secretary.
But even those who called attention to her relatively unimpressive record as a minister(for some reason no-one listened to Yvette Cooper when she pointed out May’s key role in the Tory failure to bring down net migration), and the almost Nixonian efforts she and her henchmen made to punish “enemies” and undermine cabinet rivals, missed qualities and defects that have since been clarified by the election campaign.
Few guessed that she would turn out to be such a poor speaker and campaigner. Fewer had imagined that the more voters saw of her the less they would like her, almost as if the general public were quicker to spot and be turned off by her more dislikable qualities than either her colleagues or the Westminster press corps.
Perhaps they sensed that May in office is something of a bully, and like most bullies a bit of a coward. In the past she succeeded in large part thanks to an intimidating, Dick Cheney-esque mien and a justified reputation for Albanian vengefulness. But when stood up to, as in her unfortunate TV interview with Andrew Neil, she tends to fold. Following that rap on the nose she spent the rest of the campaign trying to avoid difficult moments with either sharp interviewers or potentially hostile members of the general public. It’s hard to imagine Margaret Thatcher chickening out of any debate; May’s doing so went down badly with a population that generally admires courage even in politicians they don’t like, and expects it of would-be prime ministers.
It is unfortunate both for herself and the fortunes of her party that May has so often contributed her to the perception that she’s a bully and a mean, spiteful person by the gratuitous nastiness of some of her political moves and her policy positions. These include her stated willingness after the Brexit vote to exploit the status of EU citizens resident in the UK as a bargaining tool – a position that horrified Brexit leaders such Daniel Hannan and Boris Johnson (and seemed all the odder given that she herself had supported the Remain campaign).
Equally gratuitous was her blanket purge of the Cameroons from the cabinet after she became Prime Minister. Its sweep included even the popular and utterly unthreatening arts minister Ed Vaizey. To be fair, Mrs May had probably endured many infuriating humiliations during the five years she worked in a cabinet led by posh young popinjays whose arrogance was undented by their failure to win a majority against Gordon Brown. But a more confident and more wisely Machiavellian politician might have been less comprehensively vengeful.
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That said it was arguably quite brilliant of May to bring in potentially dangerous critics like David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson and have them share a foreign policy portfolio whose likely failure would redound on them and whose unlikely success she would be able to claim for herself.
Then, during the election campaign, May’s relentless, repetitive attacks on Jeremy Corbyn also felt gratuitous to the point that they became counterproductive – prompting even those who fear his extremist views to feel if not sympathy then respect for his comparative civility.
It would surely have been more effective as well as more graceful (and would suggested genuine strength) had she abjured negative attacks and instead talked about furthering and protecting British prosperity, security and opportunity.
It sometimes seems as if May can’t see a rival or enemy on the ground or in apparent disarray without giving him or her a kicking. (That her colleagues and many commentators have seemed not to notice this, or rather to miss its importance perhaps reflects the fact that bullies are so common both in journalism and in parliament.) This apparent nastiness is not just unpleasant, it’s also foolish. But another thing that seems clearer now is that Mrs May’s intellect may not be as sharp as her tongue.
In any case, much of the British public seems to have sensed that May’s vaunted toughness was mostly empty bluster. This became obvious in the wake of Westminster and Manchester terror attacks, incidents that one might have expected to redound to her advantage especially given Corbyn’s long record of palling around with terrorists.
The problem was not so much May’s historical record of cutting police numbers, though that didn’t help once the media started to make hay with it, Nor her abject failure to reform a Home Office manifestly unfit for purpose in matters of migration, asylum and border control (still mostly unremarked). Rather it was the Prime Minister’s reflexive resort to Security Theatre, above all her decision to call out troops to guard what were already the most heavily defended places in Britain.
This PR-driven charade – an empty but authoritarian-looking imitation of genuine toughness – didn’t signal determination but rather cynicism or even clueless desperation. Because it rang so false (and also insulted both the police and the army) it probably undermined people’s confidence in May’s ability to deal with a threat that was suddenly very real and very frightening.
At the same time May failed to offer up any personal vision of the Britain she wanted to build or defend, and like her predecessors she took for granted, or screwed over, in the modern Tory way, traditional reservoirs of support like older people and the armed forces. It’s still staggering that she went along with her electorally clueless advisers’ idea to include the so called “dementia tax” in the Tory manifesto.
Worse still – and rather surprisingly – she also followed the lead of her immediate predecessors by condescendingly treating the public as dim and easily bored targets for political marketing and branding. After the failure of Cameron and Osborne’s “Project Fear” efforts in the Brexit campaign, and given her initial lead in the polls, you might have expected May to try a more positive approach that treated voters as sensible adults.
It’s possible that it was Sir Lynton Crosby who convinced May against her better instincts to repeat the “strong and stable” mantra until it reeked of condescension, then became a punchline and finally became a handicap. But adopting and then overdoing “strong and stable” was very much in May’s political style.It’s reminiscent of her use of the empty phrase “policing by consent” after the disaster of the 2011 riots. And even if it were Crosby who persuaded May to continue with the phrase, when it would have been better to treat voters with the same respect they got from Corbyn, the fact that May followed such lousy advice only highlights her insecure and ultimately costly over-reliance a handful of trusted advisers.
All that said, in the aftermath of the election it was hard not to feel a little sorry for Mrs May, given how miserable it must have been to watch the results come in over a 24-hour period of global humiliation. There is also something a bit nauseating about the way so many of Mrs May’s colleagues and erstwhile supporters have suddenly and belatedly noticed her faults and found the courage to criticise them publicly.
Most people in that position would feel a strong desire to vanish immediately and permanently from public life. Only someone possessed of an unusually thick skin or a profound sense of duty would resolve to stay the course. The fact that May did so surely contrasts impressively with David Cameron’s petulant-looking resignation following the Brexit vote.
That May stayed on to take the brickbats and rebuild her government may also reflect that she truly understands what is now at stake: namely that the UK has only just (for now) escaped and avoided rule by Labour party currently controlled by Chavista radicals with a record of supporting terrorism, tyranny and ethnic cleansing.
Even her closest supporters realized that May would have to reinvent herself as a leader in fundamental ways. She’d have to learn to concentrate on the big picture – ie the national interest – rather than focus on petty victories in cabinet or at Question Time, and perhaps for the first time embrace an ethos of collegiality and cooperation.
However, the early signs were mixed at best. Why on earth would May fire Robert Halfon, the minister for apprenticeships and skills? Could it be that she simply finds it unnerving to work alongside a genuine idealist known for his integrity, or was it an indirect way of taking revenge on George Osborne for his relentlessly negative coverage of her in the Evening Standard (Halfon and Osborne have long been close)? On the other hand she brought Michael Gove back into the cabinet, unfortunately not to continue his much needed to reforms of the prison system, which must have required considerable grit given the intensity of their past feuds
Then came the Grenfell Tower fire and Mrs May’s astonishing response to it, an episode that surely shows beyond much doubt that she lacks the emotional intelligence and political acumen required of a successful party leader (let alone Prime Minister) in modern Britain.
Rightly or wrongly (and probably rightly) it is expected of any contemporary democratic political leader confronted by disaster to turn up promptly at the scene and make appropriate noises and gestures of concern and support. When George W Bush failed to show up in New Orleans after the flood it had a catastrophic effect on perceptions of him as a President and a man, even among his erstwhile supporters.
If Mrs May had good political instincts she would have gone to the burning building that very night. Perhaps, in an effort to emulate Churchill at the Sidney Street Siege of 1911, she might even have taken charge of the confused efforts to look after the fleeing residents. That’s the kind of thing you do after coming close to losing an election: you take the initiative and show that you can rise above your personal shock and humiliation and behave like a leader.
At the risk of sounding cynical, the Grenfell Tower horror offered an opportunity for the Prime Minister to bounce back, just as it presented opportunities for opposition politicians to grandstand, and extremists to cause trouble.
Instead May not only failed to make anything of it, she turned it into a political debacle. She bizarrely waited too long before going to the scene of the disaster – a mere 20 minute drive from Downing Street — and even then avoided meeting displaced surviving residents until forced by public opinion to do so the following day. This virtually guaranteed a damagingly hostile reception when she finally decided to do the right thing. Worse still, it opened a space that was immediately exploited by political extremists and troublemakers who, unlike the PM and her cabinet, can sense the febrile atmosphere in the capital and the potential for serious, even transformative, political disorder.
It is true that her Tory colleagues were equally diffident or distracted. Boris didn’t bother to turn up, nor have the various conservative ministers and bigwigs who live in the area. But Theresa May is the Prime Minister, and moreover a politician who campaigned as woman of action, and someone who “gets things done.”
Her defenders have said that she is a reserved and reticent person in the traditional British way, as if showing up at the scene would have required her to weep openly, hug strangers and make intemperate statements about “punishing the guilty”. It’s an argument that was rather exploded by the Queen’s visit, a visit that echoed those of her equally reserved and reticent father to the East End in World War II.
It is possible, that like Gordon Brown, also something of a bully and also uncomfortable dealing with the general public even at the best of times) Mrs May simply doesn’t have much capacity for empathy. But you would expect her – or those advising her — to understand how important it is to show up and try express the required thoughts emotions regardless of whether she actually feels them.
In the end it doesn’t actually matter whether it was fear, post-election trauma, the loss of her chiefs of staff, bad advice from civil servants, plain stupidity or some combination thereof that prompted her to stay silent and keep her distance from the Kensington fire and its unforgivably chaotic aftermath. It was an unacceptably poor performance that demonstrated a lack of leadership qualities.
That said, May should stay in office for a while, at least until things calm down. To rescue her reputation and to protect the country from the prospect Corbyn government (perhaps one swept in on a wave of civil disorder fomented by his radical allies and worsened by Tory cluelessness) she may need to reinvent herself as a leader in fundamental ways. She’ll have to learn to concentrate on the big picture – ie the national interest – rather than focus on petty victories in cabinet or at Question Time, and perhaps for the first time embrace an ethos of collegiality and cooperation. She will also have to find advisers whose instincts and sense of public mood aren’t deformed by years spent in the Westminster bubble. It’s a huge challenge, but maybe Mrs May will surprise everyone, including herself by pulling it off.