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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”