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

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

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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 appears in the 13 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions