Theresa May was a 1950s Conservative: resolute but charmless, and will be remembered for failure

The Prime Minister never recovered from her decision to call a snap general election during which she campaigned without charm or courage. 

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There’s a song about youthful rebellion by the Police that I liked when I was at school but haven’t listened to for several decades. It’s called “Born in the 50s” – Sting, the band’s singer-songwriter, was born in 1951 – and I found myself thinking about it when Theresa May announced her long overdue resignation. These lines in particular resonated: “We freeze like statues on the pages of history/Living was never like this when we took all those GCEs/Oh you opened the door for us/And then you turned to dust.”

Like Sting, May was born in the Fifties (1956). Though she came to political consciousness in the Seventies, when she was at Oxford University and joined the Conservative Association, she seemed as prime minister somehow frozen in time, more a creation of the age of conformity that was the 1950s than someone formed by the upheavals and turbulence of the period of her late adolescence and early adulthood, which perhaps explains her obsession with immigration and closed borders.

There’s something terribly stiff about May in public. She seems so tense, so buttoned up; her face often held in that rictus of unease, as if she’s perpetually terrified of being embarrassed. When she wept at the end of her resignation speech, with the black door of 10 Downing Street gleaming behind her in the sunshine, one glimpsed something of the vulnerable woman behind the iron mask. The gathered photographers captured the moment for posterity, of course: here she was, the latest Tory leader to be consumed in the fires of the party’s long civil war over Europe. Her premiership was turning to dust before our eyes.

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During the 2017 general election campaign, John Crace, the Guardian’s witty and likeable sketch writer, coined the term “the Maybot” to describe the Prime Minister’s stilted performances. There’s a reason this name seemed so perfect: there was nothing warm or spontaneous about May as she went about her business, boasting of her capacity to deliver strong and stable government, pursuing her strategy of No Compromise on Brexit. Just after the election, already wounded, May’s initial cold, panicked response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy seemed utterly characteristic: you never doubted her compassion or horror at what had happened, but what she couldn’t do was respond humanly to the tragedy or find a language commensurate to her public role or the gravity of the moment. Instead of speaking for the nation, May shrank and even appeared to hide behind the protective shield of officialdom.

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And yet her early weeks in Downing Street had begun with promise. Guided by Nick Timothy, her chief ideologue, who later turned against his former friend after the debacle of the 2017 election campaign resulted in his defenestration and a new career as a columnist, May seemed to understand something fundamental about the forces at play not only in Britain but throughout Europe and the United States. What she and Timothy understood was that the liberal consensus was unravelling and that free-market globalisation was fragmenting. There were millions of people in this country, not just in the small cities and coastal towns, who felt ignored and unrepresented by the Westminster elites. More than this, they hated and did not trust them. Nigel Farage has always understood this.

What interested Timothy – and by proxy May – was a form of leftist conservatism, a fusion of Blue Labour and Red Toryism, which is why in her first Conservative conference speech as leader (the infamous “citizens of nowhere” speech) she denounced both the socialist left and the libertarian right. When I interviewed Theresa May in Downing Street in January 2017, she attempted to elaborate on her vision of a pro-state communitarian conservatism. She was never entirely convincing, and it seemed to me as if she was merely ventriloquising the ideas of Nick Timothy. But at least she was trying to plot a new direction and articulate a politics of the common good, rather than simply offering more of the same small-state, anti-government rhetoric of the unthinking right

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That all now seems a long time ago. May never recovered from her decision to call a snap general election during which she campaigned without charm or courage – she avoided the televised leaders’ debates, for instance, and sent Amber Rudd into the fray to represent her. It was all so grim-faced and joyless. Having abandoned her early positioning as prime minister when she had condemned society’s “burning injustices”, May deservedly lost the Conservatives’ hard-won majority.

We were entering the long, painful period of what I have called her masochism premiership, and she held on to office largely because of the support of the DUP, the hard-line Ulster Protestants. Meanwhile, collective responsibility collapsed, the ministerial resignations and sackings piled up, and the plots to oust her became ever more labyrinthine. May remained implacable and resilient, but long before she resigned she’d lost authority and respect, and seemed increasingly pitiful as she croakily made the case for her doomed withdrawal agreement.

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Theresa May aspired to be much more than the Brexit prime minister. She wanted to lead Britain out of the interregnum in which we find ourselves and create a new social and economic consensus, as Attlee and Thatcher had done in different ways before her. As a former Remainer, she never really believed that the UK should leave the European Union, but she considered it her duty to honour the referendum result of 2016 and deliver Brexit. In the end, she could not even manage that. She will be remembered for failure, her face frozen in misery like a statue on the pages of history.

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 31 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Theresa May’s toxic legacy