W Stephen Gilbert
History will not be kind to Theresa May. By the standards she forthrightly set herself at the outset of her premiership, she has been a dismal failure. She proposed that, contrary to most impartial expectation, she would be a socially liberal prime minister who would strive to relieve the economic pressure on the poorest members of British society (the briefly famous “just about managing”), but the only small concessions towards the relief of poverty that have been wrung from her government have done nothing to reduce the incidence of homelessness, food banks and wage rates that undershoot the demands made by private landlords, services starved of funds and price rises.
And that’s without even mentioning Brexit.
Following the self-inflicted disaster of the 2017 general election, in which May utterly failed to project herself with any conviction as “strong and stable”, she became, in George Osborne’s devastating phrase, “a dead woman walking”.
That campaign was the most complacent, least effective ever fought by a major political party in Britain, and the only explanation for the media’s astonishment at the result can be that editors and columnists had so convinced themselves that they had rendered Jeremy Corbyn, in their description of choice, “unelectable” that they could see no outcome other than a thumping Tory victory. What they could not see was that Corbyn is an inspired and inspiring campaigner, while May is as dull as ditchwater.
The social media commentator Aidan Daley summed her up admirably: “Mayvis: a political nonentity of such crushing mediocrity and insignificance that even when standing in direct sunlight she casts no shadow. A third-rate office manager elevated light years beyond her intellectual capacity, professional capabilities and pay grade. A national embarrassment and global laughing stock”.
This unsparing but unarguable buttonholing raises a historical problem for the Conservative Party that shows no sign of quick resolution. When May was elected Tory leader and hence prime minister, the field of choice was notable for its lightweight uniformity. Given the length of her cabinet experience, May clearly outshone her rivals, if not in charisma (a quality conspicuously lacking from the field). But the quality of leadership of the party has been modest at best for years. Among Tory leaders since the war, only Margaret Thatcher has managed to catch the climate of her time and impose her personality on a discernible period, however much one may deplore that climate and that period.
What is striking about Conservative politics is that those who wish to hold onto power and wealth for their own class and who have the ambition and talent and imagination to make a difference do not go into politics. They become entrepreneurs, traders, speculators. There is too much regulation and self-abnegation in politics for such people. Look back over the leadership of the Tory party and you get to Harold Macmillan before you encounter anyone who came from a (brief) career in business.
Comparing May with Thatcher and Macmillan is instructive. May has failed to create any sort of arresting public persona for herself. Aside from the tiresome bromide “Brexit means Brexit”, she has turned no phrase that immediately summons her to mind. Who could essay her political philosophy, other than hanging on grimly against insuperable odds and paying heed to no advice?
She has no imagination, no resourcefulness, no wit and no management skills. When pressed, she retreats to prepared responses, regardless of their irrelevance to the question in hand. We are now told that she is “a patriot” – the last refuge of a political scoundrel – and that she has “tried her best”, which was clearly grossly inadequate to the task.
The mainstream media will be eternally grateful to her for betraying emotion at the end of her resignation statement, thereby providing the “human interest” angle that cements the moment in history and will be trotted out in every story about the May premiership for ever after, much like Thatcher’s tear-stained face in the back of the limo as it pulled away from Downing Street for the last time. Whether this emotion sits appropriately with the “dignity” that her admirers are rushing to credit to her is a question for others to ponder.
Attention now turns to her successor. Vast though the field is, it is again notable for its lightweight nature. Smart money will be on Rory Stewart, already a media darling and a politician unusually capable of sounding thoughtful and candid. He also has the advantage of having led a colourful pre-politics life, thereby bringing instincts to his politics from beyond the confines of career consultants and spads. But most speculation centres on Boris Johnson, despite the high level of suspicion that he generates among Tory MPs. He is said to be enthusiastically supported at the grassroots.
In this as in other aspects, he brings to mind Donald Trump. If Rory Stewart would offer a safe pair of hands, Johnson would suggest a Trump-like level of gaffes and embarrassments, thrills and spills.
That would certainly draw a line under the dead hand of the May era, but is there really an appetite for it on the Tory benches? Had Trump required the support of the senate to become the Republican candidate in 2016, he would not now be president. But Johnson will require the support of the Commons to become prime minister, and we may already be sure that his elevation would provoke some party resignations.
Moreover, while a Trump-Johnson alliance looks more promising of mutual support than any other possible combo, it may well only have eighteen months in which to flourish.
A Johnson premiership would represent an uncharacteristic rush of blood to the collective Tory head, comparable to Quentin Hailsham Hogg being preferred as prime minister to Macmillan or Home. After the long drawn-out death rattle of May’s period in office, the inevitable being postponed day by day until it became unbearable to everyone, politics now reverts to its proper and characteristic rhythm of utter unpredictability.
The old saw that the frontrunner never wins a leadership race may just be confounded on this occasion. Who can say? All supporters of other parties can do is to wait and see and remain ready for any eventuality.