The Debate: Is Theresa May good - or just lucky?

The politics team discuss Britain's new Prime Minister.

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Welcome to the Debate, where the New Statesman's political team tackles your questions. 

Stephen Bush (special correspondent): Hi everyone, and welcome to this week’s – and our first – chat: is Theresa May lucky, or good?

I suppose the divide could be summarised like this:

Theresa May is good. She saw off a decent Liberal Democrat challenge in 2005, was a Conservative moderniser before it was cool, survived for six years as Home Secretary, a traditional graveyard, against three of Labour’s brightest and best – Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham – saw off a series of rivals who were well-established in the press, secured the backing of enough MPs to be elected by acclamation, and has a thumping lead in the polls over Labour.

OR:

Theresa May is lucky. Having frittered away the majority she inherited in 1997 at the 2001 election, only the fact the Liberal Democrats made too much noise about their “decapitation strategy” meant she survived the 2005 election at all. She was of the generation of Tory reformers who went down to repeated defeats and would still be losing if David Cameron hadn’t arrived to bail them out. As Home Secretary, she benefited from Blair’s decision to split the Ministry of Justice from the Home Office, and was lucky to have as her shadows three politicians who had their eyes on another job rather than the task of opposing her. After every other adult in the Conservative party self-destructed, she became leader by default, the political equivalent of the late hook-up at a party. Now she has the fortune of having Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader – and she’s only ahead by eight points, barely more than the margin Cameron saw off Ed Miliband by.

Of course those are both caricatures, but you get the point. Thoughts?

Jonn Elledge (Editor, CityMetric): This is slightly off the point, but... are we comfortable with calling May a "reformer"? Really? I mean, I know she gave the Nasty Party speech, but she did some pretty mean, authoritarian things as Home Secretary

It takes some doing to offend private equity firms who want to privatise higher education and the UCLUat the same time...yet with her treatment of international students, somehow May managed it.

Stephen: Well "mean and authoritarian" is in many ways the sweet spot as far as Home Office policy and public opinion is concerned, and if you take the main aim of Conservative modernisation to refit the Tory party as one that could win again, I think it's fair, although I'm sure others will disagree.

Also, as far as the Tory wars of 1997-2006 were concerned, at every point, May was on the side of what we might call the Tory modernisers, and in the final showdown of the referendum battle, she was with them on being better off in, albeit in a rather subdued fashion.

Jonn: Don't mind me, just trying to derail the conversation before we even begin.

Julia Rampen (Staggers Editor): I would err on the side of "good". Mainly because before this whole Brexit thing, the Daily Mail already had her on the front page as "Finally - a woman with guts"

She has managed to touch the DM's buttons in a way that David Cameron never could.

I also have a tendency to suspect, when you have someone from a group that is under-represented in politics, whether that's women, BAME, working class etc, that they have to be a bit better than their "norm" colleagues just to get where they are.

And finally, I don't think it was luck that kept her in the running during Brexitpocalypse. She deliberately kept her cards very close to her chest throughout - unlike George Osborne, who sank with Remain.

Jonn: More seriously, I don't think it's either/or. There are so many things that can go wrong for home secretaries that anyone who can hold the job for six years - and then move onto a better job - must be both good *and* lucky.

Julia: That's true - and wasn't Home Sec meant to be a graveyard job?

Jonn: I also think she's been pretty laser-focused on what she wants to achieve. The international students thing annoyed me. It even, unexpectedly, upset the Daily Mail a bit. But it allowed May to portray herself as genuinely tough on immigration, in a government that largely just claimed to be - and as offensive as we may find that, it's cat nip for the Tory selectorate.

Stephen: I'm on the same page as Julia in that it's hard to sustain the idea that you get to be only the second woman to become PM if you are just lucky.

Jonn: Sure - but I don't think you do that without luck either.

Stephen: Agree. And on the students thing: she had the good fortune (in my view) to be shadowed by Yvette Cooper, who for various reasons never got a real campaign going on. If the failure to hit those targets *and* the opposition of universities, the IEA, etc. to deporting students had been a bigger factor her time at the HO might have been seen very differently by Conservative activists and MPs.

Julia: Here's a question: did her two main rivals - BoJo and Osborne - fall because they were unlucky or bad?

Stephen: Boris was unlucky, Osborne was bad.

Julia: I've always thought Osborne was pretty skilful on Budgets (from a financial hack perspective) and for the first time in the run up to Brexit I thought he might have some principles too. Got the impression he was going down with that ship. But maybe that's bad politics, so it counts as bad

Stephen: Osborne's leadership hopes ended not on 23 June but when the House of Lords voted down the statutory instrument on tax credits, IMO.

And that was bad politics in every direction: the wrong values, the wrong tactics, a bad parliamentary device that allowed Lords to block it.

Julia: True. Tax credits cuts was terrible. I knew it from the moment I wrote a headline: 'Tories to cut benefits for working families'

I was actually on holiday for that budget, so I wasn't counting it among the good ones.

Stephen: Julia outed as Osborne's good luck charm!

George Eaton (Political Editor): The defining call that May made was on the EU referendum. It was Boris's position that was regarded as the smart one but May's proved to be smarter. Her "reluctant Remainer" stance avoided excessive disloyalty to either the Tory grassroots or the leadership.

Anoosh Chakelian (deputy web editor): If we take Osborne and Johnson as being bad and unlucky, those two things were both out of getting sucked in to the classic trap of the perpetual Tory civil war over Europe. Theresa May didn't do that, and that's out of being good, not lucky.

George: Craig Oliver may now complain that she didn't campaign hard enough. But few care now. History isn't written by the losers. May (correctly) judged that campaigning full-throttle for Remain wouldn't have made much difference.

Anoosh:  It's hard not to get drawn into that black hole as a senior Tory politician. It did for Cameron too.

Stephen: It may still do for Theresa May as well.

Anoosh:  True.

Julia: True, she's managed to capture all instincts of the grassroots without turning it into Europe. But as Stephen says, she can't avoid it now

Anoosh: But it was skilful that she avoided it before becoming PM (a move that led to her becoming PM).

Julia: What about TM's decision to do 'you break it you fix it' with Brexit. What does that tell us about her?

Anoosh: I understand why she appointed the "Three Brexiteers", but I think in reality, the party's arch eurosceptics are too eager to feel betrayed either way - whether it's their chief cheerleaders in the top negotiating jobs or not. Nothing will be good enough for them

Julia: Yes, and I'm also starting to get freaked out that they could completely fuck it up as well. Like the EU's technocrats will walk all over David Davis

Anoosh: And she will pay the price, I expect, because she'll have to shuffle those Brexiteers out eventually.

George: May needed to appoint Brexiteers to reassure Tory MPs. But it's wrong for anyone to imagine (and I don't think she does) that she can escape responsibility for the outcome. She is Prime Minister, after all, and a micro-managing one at that.

Jonn: So is the question when her luck is going to run out? I met someone at Labour conference who has £20 on her being out before next autumn...

Julia: I met a lot of people at Labour conference who are convinced about a lot of things.

Anoosh: In terms of Whitehall, there are frustrations about that "micro-management" style that George mentioned. She may become a victim of her own success at the Home Office, because apparently No 10 is approaching a lot of government work as if it's the Home Office, not No 10.

Julia: That's interesting, I haven't read that much about that

Anoosh: Perhaps she was Home Secretary too long, and may end up making bad policy in other places because of it

Stephen: Yep, particularly at MoJ there's a feeling Downing Street regards them as a rogue outpost of the Home office.

Anoosh: Yes, I was going to write about it and now I've given away my idea - it's all yours, rival journos who happen to be reading this!

Julia: The thing about the Home Office is she could do her authoritarian 'ban international students' thing without having to worry about the cost to the economy. Now she does. Hahahahah

Anoosh: Exaaaactly. The Daily Mail friendly Home Secretary style leadership works - if you're only leading the Home Office. Otherwise you just end up making bad policy

Julia: Remember the asylum seeker's cat?

Stephen: The asylum seeker doesn't.

Anoosh: Is it Larry?

Jonn: I do feel like her policies at the Home Office might - might - have been guided as much by her political ambitions as by her actual beliefs. There did feel like there was a clash between the reformer rhetoric of the early 2000s, and what she actually did in office.But she's so difficult to read that I find it impossible to tell which is the real her.

Anoosh: Sure, but that happened to Cameron too. (I guess leadership ambitions were also a motive for him as well!)

Julia: There was a really interesting long read in the Guardian about her from a while back, which painted her as surprisingly outward looking 

 Stephen: But the outward-looking thing cuts both ways: she blames immigration for the rise of rightwing populism throughout Europe. She's up for learning from the continent, just not in the way I'd like...

George: May is a good example of an "and" politician (rather than an "either/or" one). You can be for reform of stop and search *and* tougher anti-terrorist powers. You can be for equal marriage and stricter immigration rules. You don't have to take the whole liberal/authoritarian package.

Julia: Maybe that's why she's been so successful - the old ideological coherency among voters has broken down so maybe it has with politicians too

Anoosh: I agree with George - that binary outlook makes it very easy for Tories to pretend they’re progressive when actually it's only relative/they're not at all

Julia: It's kind of like the bastard who says 'good morning' in a cheery way once a week and you appreciate it so much more than if a normal person did it.

She can get away with the odd lefty policy that Labour couldn't do without wooing the City for a year. At Labour conference, they kept complaining about how if they wanted to put workers on boards they'd have had to consult, network etc

George: The most significant resistance to May's interventionism so far seems to be from the cabinet (most notably Philip Hammond).

There are two rival interpretations of the Leave vote. May's view is that reinforces the case for a more statist approach to increase investment and raise living standards. Others, such as Osborne, argue that the need for a liberal stance has never been greater. The UK has to promote itself as a haven for global companies through low corp. tax, for example.

Julia: I'm interested to see how Philip Hammond performs at the Autumn Statement. He was never one of the people who grabbed my attention up till now.

Jonn: Will Hammond be Alastair Darling to May's Gordon Brown...?

 George:

That Hammond/Darling comparison could catch on, in more ways than one.

Both dull technocrats, who have risen without trace.

Both regarded as steadfast allies by the PM. But Darling became an enemy. Will Hammond?

Stephen: I think that's hugely unfair to Hammond. The dull thing, I mean. Always been one of the more interesting neo-Thatcherites in the Cabinet and is enjoyably frank in select committees.

Julia: I think it's unfair to Alastair! I say it as a loyal Edinburger.

George: Darling became interesting once he was in the Treasury. Any Chancellor is.

Stephen: I wouldn't call an ex-Trot turned ultimate New Labour minister like Darling dull either.

Julia: Also, he did drop the bombshell of the pre-Brexit 21st century when he basically confirmed the financial crisis

Stephen: Also, look at this hottie.

He could send me to sleep any time. Phwoar!

Anoosh: Hello!

Jonn: Haha I think George is talking more about perception. I think Darling was an incredibly good chancellor who is perversely under-rated because of everything that was going on at the time. I'm kind of praying Hammond will be the same, tbh.

 

 

Stephen: Julia is threatening to quit if we don't get back on topic. I wanted to bring up George and Anoosh's argument that the reluctant Remainer thing was good not lucky. If Brexit breaks the United Kingdom and her premiership it won't look so astute, will it?

Julia: I think if Brexit breaks up the UK there will be a hundred other reasons for her to quit. But the blame should still go back to David Cameron

 

Anoosh: No, it won't, but it depends on your goal. Her goal was to become Prime Minister - a horrible prospect in terms of Brexit, but made slightly more palatable in terms of a horrendously weak opposition. Worth the risk I say.

George: Leave would have won even if May was an enthusiastic Remainer.

 Julia: Just to play the Scottish card, I don't think May's trips to Edinburgh will be hugely influential on how Brexit affects the union. They were noted, and appreciated, by people I spoke to, but only in the context of Cameron's tone deaf approach.

I think the SNP's ability to maintain support will be much more influential, and the biggest threat to that is Ruth Davidson.

It's telling that the SNP press office almost exclusively focuses on slagging off the Scottish Tories now.

Anoosh: Yes, I've noticed that

Julia: Typical headline: DAVIDSON CHALLENGED OVER BREXIT 43,000 JOB LOSS PREDICTION

They are really going for Europe, while Labour pieces itself back together. Another headline: ‘SNP THE ONLY PARTY TO BE TRUSTED ON EUROPE’

Jonn: That's my big question, I guess. May has been both good and lucky so far - but if we're going for a hard Brexit, and it's horrible as most experts seem to be expecting, could any PM ride that one out?  Stephen, what's that chess term you love about having no moves that don't make things worse?

Stephen: Zugzwang! And yes, I think I would say that TM is in zugzwang. Can a) knacker the economy b) knacker the Tory party or c) both.

Julia: At some point she's going to have to take the decision she's ducked before - whether she sides with the "experts", the metropolitan cities and the professional classes, and does the deal that is closest to Remain, or orders the full English Brexit

Jonn: Yeah. She's done very well by keeping her options open. That isn't going to possible for that much longer.

Stephen: History won’t judge her kindly if she bungles Brexit to the point that she loses to the supposedly unelectable Jeremy Corbyn, no?

George: At present, the internal opposition looks like a greater risk to May than the external one. Hard Brexit will incur the wrath of the Cameroons (less of a risk) Soft Brexit that of the Leavers (more of a risk).

Anoosh: I don't know - is there an equivalent situation? She has inherited the Brexit problem, like David Cameron took over at a time of financial difficulty. Cameron and Osborne made it worse, in terms of people's living standards, but that wasn't - eventually - why they were electorally punished

So if May makes the economy worse, by going for the "hard" option, that might not necessarily be the reason she's booted out of Downing Street?

Stephen: I take the view that what helped the Tories is that for that 37 per cent they need to stay in office, austerity happened to someone else.

Anoosh: Yes. Now it'll be middle class people affected.

Julia: We’re preoccupied with the northern working class Brexit vote, because Labour is, but actually sadly for them that's pretty irrelevant as far as elections are concerned.

Stephen: Agree 100%. A form of Brexit that disappoints people in Sunderland is not a problem for the Tories, but I am not at all convinced that people in the Midlands are going to take a form of Brexit where the pound buys shit all on holiday and they need a visa to go to Ibiza. Which certainly seems to be where we are heading, and may settle the “good or lucky” question one way or the other.

George: If May does win a landslide election victory she'll get the credit. But it's arguably Cameron who should.

Julia: I don't think Cameron deserves any credit! He gambled on two referendums, very nearly lost one and lost the other!

George: He was the first Tory PM to win a majority for 23 years.

Julia: And the first to hasten the break up of the Union.

Stephen: Preach!

Julia: He's put the whole NI peace process in jeopardy

Stephen: Sing it sister!

Julia: He didn't even manage to win the first time round, in the middle of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression!

Stephen: Say it again!

Jonn: I struggle to think of a prime minister with a worse legacy than Cameron at this point. Neville Chamberlain? Lord North?

Julia: Lolol Chamberlain.

George: But no PM has increased their party's share of the votes and seats after a full term since 1832. He wasn't just lucky, he was quite good. But I'm talking purely in electoral terms, not his overall record (which is pretty dismal).

Stephen: Anthony Eden did it after four years. And then, also, weirdly, oversaw a disastrous diminution of British power a year later. But all of this seems like things we should save for next week’s chat: the 2015 election – WTF happened with that? I may tweak the title. 

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