Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

An epic tale of hubris and humiliation: Theresa May’s masochism premiership

She won the ultimate prize, and then tossed it away so carelessly.

When I interviewed Theresa May in Downing Street at the beginning of February, she seemed unassailable. She had just returned from visiting Donald Trump in Washington, DC, and, though she had been ridiculed for holding hands with the absurd autocrat, she had delivered a well-received speech to the Republican high command in Philadelphia, in which she outlined what would be a new “realist” British foreign policy. Her approval ratings were excellent and the country seemed to like her reserve and seriousness of purpose.

For the new Prime Minister, the vote for Brexit had created the conditions for what she said would be a renewal of our national politics: it was both a protest against the status quo and a plea for help. She believed that liberalism was in crisis. Too many people were losing out under free-market globalisation: they felt especially alienated from the metropolitan ascendancy. Our borders were too porous and our model of let-it-rip financial capitalism was too socially irresponsible.

Seeking to move on from the Cameron/Blair consensus and as contemptuous of libertarians as she was of socialists, May believed the state should serve as the final guarantor of social cohesion. She had a Burkean respect for institutional wisdom. She told me that the government would intervene to reform failing or rigged markets and, as she said in her first speech in Downing Street, would fight against “burning injustice”. This was surprising language for a Conservative in the post-Thatcher era.

****

That morning, as we drank tea in her office and spoke about her desire to remake conservatism for “the common good”, I was struck by Theresa May’s sincerity as well as her awkwardness. Outside her office sat her joint chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, gatekeepers and guards. The former had greeted me warmly and the latter as if I had forced my way into Downing Street through a broken window. In my subsequent piece, headlined “The May doctrine”, I called the Prime Minister a post-liberal and explained what I considered to be her strategy (guided by Timothy) to forge a popular post-Brexit national politics, negotiating a space between nationalism and globalisation.

On 18 April, May called a snap general election, convinced that she would win the Tories their first commanding majority since 1987 and a resounding mandate for a “hard” Brexit. The results of the local election on 4 May merely bolstered her conviction that she was on course for a landslide on 8 June. Then the short campaign began, and we know what happened next.

****

May marked her first anniversary as Prime Minister this week by delivering in London what was billed as a “relaunch” speech. As an editor, I don’t like the word “relaunch”. If you’re having to relaunch something – a magazine, a business – it is often already too late. In her speech, May used more of the communitarian language that had distinguished her early weeks in Downing Street when she promised to be a different kind of conservative. Yet it sounded hollow after the banalities of her election campaign when she’d had the chance to say what she felt, not what she was obliged to say by whoever was advising her. Her appeal for cross-party co-operation was especially risible, when compared with her uncompromising pre-election aspiration to crush dissent in the Commons.

May is not a fool. She knows that the forward march of the Red Tories has been halted. Her chief ideologue, Nick Timothy, has gone, unfairly blamed for the election debacle, and the political philosopher Phillip Blond has been left to lament more missed opportunities, as he did last week in these pages.

The Prime Minister’s associates are regretful that during the election campaign she did not make one memorable speech: she shrank under scrutiny just when she should have enlarged her vision of the “new model” conservatism. And she had nothing to say to those who voted Remain. “My biggest regret,” Timothy has written, “is that we did not campaign in accordance with the insight that took Theresa to Downing Street in the first place.”

****

Tony Blair’s aides had a phrase for the 2005 general election: “the masochism campaign”. After the Iraq invasion, Blair was in retreat and, as he toured the country, he soaked up the punishment as he was denounced and abused. Unlike May in 2017, Blair still enjoyed campaigning and was prepared for the worst as he met the public and took hostile questions from journalists.

May detests confrontation and is easily rattled. She has an unfortunate facial expression, exacerbated under pressure, a look of embarrassed disdain, of sudden alarm even, as if she were afraid of humiliation. She is at her best when she delivers a long-deliberated speech; at her most uncomfortable when she fears the loss of control. Hers has become the masochism premiership. She knows her authority is shattered. She knows that most of her cabinet colleagues believe she is finished and are scheming against her. She knows that, when the party believes the time is right, she will be forced out. At the G20 summit, as she posed for photographs with her fellow world leaders, she seemed lost and diminished. Her face was fixed in that familiar rictus of unease.

How long will Theresa May last in Downing Street? The mood among colleagues is conspiratorial and vengeful. The summer recess cannot come soon enough for her. She has told her friends that she will serve her party for as long as she is required. She will soak up the punishment. The story of the May premiership is an epic of hubris and humiliation. Only she can really know how it feels to have won the ultimate prize and then to have tossed it away so carelessly. She has no one to blame but herself. And so the masochism premiership goes on – for now. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions

Getty
Show Hide image

Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.