Prime Minister Theresa May and her allies in the Tory leadership — a very small group — have inflicted a serious blow to their party, their government, and their country. Yet they seem disposed to treat their failure as something that can be set aside in the greater interest of remaining in office. Almost certainly this assumption is as unfounded and dangerous as their conduct of the election campaign. It might have equal or worse consequences.
Reasonable people may differ on whether May’s decision to hold an election when she already had a slim but sufficient majority was itself the cause of the catastrophe. We would argue that since Brexit was being resisted politically and legally, there were good reasons of national interest to entrench its democratic mandate and to strengthen the government’s hand in negotiations with the EU. True, her failure to win a majority is now seen as weakening both aims. But that charge is overdrawn. Political parties (including Labour) representing more than 80 percent of the voters endorsed Brexit, and though the Tories suffered a serious reverse, they are still the largest party, 50 seats ahead of Labour. Brexit’s democratic justification remains valid even if there will be now be a more open debate about how best to achieve it.
What the Tory campaign lacked, moreover, was a major economic proposal to create jobs and lift the economy by cutting taxes and regulations. On the contrary, it was full of proposals for regulatory intervention. “Mayism” is rooted in the idea that a strong state could improve the lot of the workers, reduce inequality, and generally do good. In the context of Brexit, this amounted to arguing that Britain should break free of the controls and regulations of Brussels in order to impose its own better controls and regulations.
This was a self-conscious rejection of free-market enterprise — of the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, which is not the only tradition within Toryism but is by far the most creative and successful one in recent years. It is a serious defect of the Tory party that May was able to impose her odd economic vision — a kind of paternalist social democracy — on it with relatively little resistance, largely because it thought she was a winner. She herself would have been better served if, like Margaret Thatcher, she had been forced by opposition in her own ranks to fight for her ideas and thus to learn to distinguish between the good, the bad, and the ugly. She was visibly unable to make her case on complex issues during the campaign.
And go she must. Her speech after visiting the Palace to be reappointed prime minister was an exercise in dignified unrealism. She promises stable government, yet she cannot deliver it. Under minority governments a second election is an everyday possibility. She cannot fight another election because she is now unelectable. Time for the Conservative backbenchers’ 1922 Committee to propose an expedited leadership election to begin the resistance to Corbynite socialism that the Tory election campaign inadvertently invited over the drawbridge.
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