Political decay is a lot like a rotting tooth: it distracts us from anything that the person suffering from it has to say. There are many causes of discomfort at Downing Street these days, but chief among them is that Theresa May’s every action is assessed through the prism of her struggle for survival and the wider contest to replace her.
Short of inventing a time machine, there is little that the Prime Minister or her aides can do to prevent that, but it frustrates even May’s diminishing band of allies that Downing Street still seems to run into, rather than swerve away from, trouble. Her speech on 11 July – intended to “relaunch” her troubled premiership – was a case in point. Among other sins, it chose as its backdrop a review into insecure working practices, all but inviting the press to make a variety of gags about the Prime Minister’s own job insecurity.
That gaffe was particularly deadly because it speaks to a common criticism of May on the Conservative side – that her uncollegiate style and her intolerance of dissent makes her staff feel too frightened of her to offer constructive criticism. This, for some, explains why the Conservatives’ 2017 campaign was so poorly run, even though the spine of the team – from Stephen Gilbert, who ran the campaign, and the big-name hires from abroad (Lynton Crosby and Jim Messina) to Craig Elder and Tom Edmonds, the architects of the social media strategy – consists of the same people who worked on David Cameron’s successful and widely admired 2015 campaign.
The content of May’s speech, too, could have been designed to raise Tory hackles. She called for opposition parties to bring forward their ideas, rather than simply criticise hers. A few days before her “relaunch”, the former party chairman Grant Shapps wrote in the Sun on Sunday what many Conservative MPs had already been saying privately: that “instead of backing popular capitalism”, her influential aide Nick Timothy had “produced a manifesto that Ed Miliband might have been proud to call his own”. May’s appeal to the Liberal Democrats and Labour to help set government policy only compounded the Conservative anxiety that she is, at best, an unenthusiastic member of the congregation.
Even those Tory MPs who are more open to learning from the other side bridle that May is reaching out to her opponents from a position of weakness. The breadth of her offer all but invites Labour to bring forth wrecking amendments to every bill. The party was already planning to do this but it can now act, having received a prime ministerial invitation.
Conservative backbenchers are willing to forgive ideological flexibility if it is married to political dexterity. Heresy coupled with ineptitude, however, is a cocktail that few are willing to sip for long. A relaunch intended to push back May’s sell-by date has instead brought it closer, and there is a growing sense that she will have to go before the year is out, rather than sticking around to negotiate the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union.
It is easy to forget now but shortly after the Prime Minister’s announcement in April of an early election, Ipsos MORI found that she was more popular than even Tony Blair was in 1994. By the end of the election campaign, she was as unpopular as Blair when he stepped down in 2007. How did Theresa May’s premiership come apart so quickly?
The answer lies, in part, with another veteran from the last days of the Blair government: Matthew Taylor, the New Labour adviser whom the May government recruited to research the condition of the self-employed. Just as Theresa May’s premiership now resembles a scale model of Blair’s – dizzying popularity followed by dizzying unpopularity – Taylor’s review into employment practices was a microcosm of Mayism.
The analysis was correct. Britain’s great and growing army of self-employed workers can be the engine of greater prosperity but, without better and tougher regulation, it will fall prey to a Victorian-style exploitation. The solutions offered were, however, thin gruel at best and the wrong medicine at worst, irritating the right but offering nothing to the left.
As it goes with self-employment, so, too, with housing and redistribution to the young from the old. May can sound like Ed Miliband but in terms of execution, she never moves far from the David Cameron playbook. Predictably, that combination annoys both sides, rather like someone who swears loudly in church but persists in telling non-believers that they are headed for an eternity of suffering in the afterlife.
While May’s execution may have been lacking, her analysis of our economic woes still deserves a better hearing than it is receiving from her colleagues. Her private belief has always been that the EU referendum result showed that, without a stake in society, many voters would turn to the extremes. Instrumental in the loss of her parliamentary majority were the votes of people aged under 30. In 1992, when John Major unexpectedly won a parliamentary majority for the Conservatives, half of all voters under 30 owned a home. Today, just 20 per cent do – and just 23 per cent of the under-30s voted for May’s Tories, with close to two-thirds favouring Labour.
Theresa May’s great misfortune is that her lack of political judgement and the thinness of her policy solutions have discredited her analysis. Many Tories now seem to believe that a recitation of the old Conservative religion will be enough to get more bums on pews at the next election. It may yet be that the result of the next election, when it comes, validates May’s argument – but not in the way she might hope.
This article appears in the 12 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions