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13 June 2012updated 07 Jun 2021 4:22pm

Theresa May’s first and defining blunder? Sacking George Osborne

By Stephen Bush

Theresa May’s resignation has lots talking about the “impossible situation” that she inherited from David Cameron.

No one can seriously argue that Brexit, and unpicking four decades of close economic and political integration, wasn’t going to be a significant public policy challenge that would take up a good chunk of the government’s energy and focus. One of the sources of May’s difficulties has been the gradual unravelling of the referendum campaign’s big lie: that the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union was a small thing that could be unpicked swiftly and cleanly. This was a lie perpetuated by both sides of the debate: on the Leave side it was necessary to get people to back an Out vote, while the Remain campaign judged that its best hope of victory lay in minimising the scale of shared sovereignty involved in our membership of the bloc.

That was always going to be a painful subplot of the Brexit process for whoever emerged as David Cameron’s successor. But the reasons why Brexit has become a political disaster for the Tory party were authored by Theresa May, not her predecessor or either of the Brexit campaigns.

May’s first, and most under-covered, mistake was in the manner and style of the cabinet and frontbench firings she conducted in her first reshuffle. Reshuffles are a difficult balancing act for governments: on the one hand, having competent administrators, particularly at a minister of state level, is vital to actually getting anything done; but, on the other, the fastest way to turn a loyal supporter into a rebellious backbencher is to fire someone, particularly if they feel they have no way back. May tended to be fairly good at reshuffles from the perspective of her own aims: it’s just that her own aims were frequently terrible, both from a policy perspective and from a Conservative self-interest perspective. May’s aims in her first reshuffle were revenge and to signal victory in the Tory party’s internal debates. 

In her first act as Prime Minister, May opted not only to engage in one of the most sweeping reshuffles in modern times, but also took great pains to inform many of the departed of how little time she had for them, and that they had no hope of returning to frontbench life as long as she was around. Most of those sacked were in their mid-40s to early-50s: that is to say, right in the middle of their political careers, a dangerous time to leave them with nothing to lose. May sacked eight ministers, with all but one under 50 at the time. Cameron, in his most wide-ranging reshuffle, never sacked anyone under 58. 

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That essentially meant that she started out life having wiped out the majority she inherited from David Cameron in practice. She was bound at that point to be forced into an election sooner rather than later, and having eradicated her majority de facto she went on to do so de jure, thanks to her conduct of the campaign.

That her campaign was based on a falsehood – she went to the country claiming parliament was blocking her on Brexit, having never lost a vote on Brexit issues – and was conducted in slapdash fashion were, again, mistakes made by her.

Although the self-destruction of Tim Farron on the campaign trail and Jeremy Corbyn’s very strong campaign were factors beyond May’s control, both of which contributed to Labour’s revival during the contest, she would have still won a comfortable majority had she not depressed turnout among the over-55s, the most reliable plank of the coalition she inherited from David Cameron. She did that for the same reasons she went about her first reshuffle in the intensely self-destructive manner she did: because she treated it as an internal row in the Conservative Party rather than as a serious campaign to win power. 

The loss of the majority inevitably contributed to the shape of Brexit – without a parliamentary majority, the United Kingdom cannot negotiate the level of breach preferred by many Conservative MPs, because they cannot sign off a customs and regulatory barrier in the Irish Sea without being tipped out of office by the DUP, who they now rely on to stay in office.

So yes, while Brexit complicated May’s life in Downing Street, the reasons for it becoming an intractable mess and a running sore for her party are largely on her and the advisors she appointed.