Historians searching for a pithy, acidic analogy with which to condemn Mrs. May’s campaign will likely have to search outside of British politics. It was just a few weeks ago that the Conservative government looked set to return engorged. Back then, it seemed, a landslide was all but inexorable. This morning the Tories are impuissant and tainted. In gaining affirmation on a grandiose scale, Mrs. May had visions of becoming a modern Richard the Lionheart. Instead, she is soon to be reviled.
As she surveys the wreckage she has wrought, she will come to ask, “What if?”: “What if I had waited a little longer?”; “What if I had run a good campaign?”; “What if I’d been grateful for the chances I’d been given?” Already, the spin has begun. “It’s not that bad,” the Tory party is insisting. “We can still form a government. We can still move forward.” Perhaps, and perhaps. But that’s rather beside the point. At the expense of all else, the Conservatives had asked for a mandate: to govern, to negotiate, to consider, to decide. At the expense of everyone else, Mrs. May had demanded an endorsement. Neither was forthcoming. Had the campaign been about taxes or schools or the future of Britain’s ports, the mouthpieces’ jobs would be easier. “It’s a divided country,” they could say, “but we still won.” But the election was not about those things. “Theresa,” promised the literature, “is the only one who can stand up for Britain.” And the chorus replied, “No she’s not.”
No amount of sugar can sweeten this news. It is disaster for the British Right. Brexit is imperiled; the Left is emboldened; and Jeremy Corbyn — an IRA-sympathizing socialist throwback — appears credible as a leader. Europe, with good reason, is ecstatic. This was not, as some have claimed, a “second Brexit referendum” — that is wishful thinking, or opportunism, or both — but it has nevertheless provided the Remainers and the Europhiles with a chance to strengthen their hand. When, in two weeks, Mrs. May walks into the talks, she will hobble rather than stride, and her entrance will be marked by chattering and by sniping both at home and abroad. She said during the campaign that that was no way to run a country. She was right.
Has any modern prime minister made such a monumental error? Some have pointed to Anthony Eden, who waited years to take the job and then lost it summarily over Suez. But that was a military rather than a political mistake, and his crime was incompetence rather than unpopularity. Besides, while Eden damaged himself, his party emerged unscathed and went on to rule for six more years. May’s fate will not be so salutary, for it is more akin to, say, the Battle of Carrhae, at which a greedy Marcus Crassus tried to crush the Parthian Empire without ever breaking a sweat. In the end, it was Crassus and his army who were defeated — by their avarice, by their tactical incompetence, by their rank underestimation of their enemy and their misunderstanding of their allies. Had Crassus survived the battle, he might have felt as Mrs. May does today.
Had Crassus survived the battle, he might have felt as Mrs. May does today.
Not every misstep was May’s fault. Though many will now claim otherwise, few people in Britain predicted such a harsh return of the two-party system, anticipated the strength of Corbyn’s campaign, or appreciated in toto the regional differences that have made this so tough to call. But let us not make excuses: Much of the prime minister’s fate was wholly avoidable, and, indeed, might well have been avoided had she stepped outside of her circle. To base an entire political pitch around the persona of an unknown was to take a desperate, ill-omened hostage to fortune. To go negative so early and so deeply was to refuse to heed the harsh lessons that the anti-Brexiteers learned last year. To avoid policy in favor of “strength” was to lose those who value detail. And to move closer to the center because her opponent was outré was to relinquish the solemn power of contrast. There was an era in British politics during which the Conservatives were deemed the “natural party of government.” That era is gone. To win in this century, you need to have a case.
In the end, May’s wasn’t strong enough. Indeed, at times she seemed unwilling to make it at all. Astonishingly, she refused to turn up to the televised debates, dismissing the events as so much “squabbling.” And, when she did condescend to answer questions, she was either cold and robotic or prone to vacillation. A few days after her manifesto was published, she publicly reversed course on the matter of social care — handing a win to Mr. Corbyn and vacating her “strong woman” image. In hindsight, she never got it back. Rather, she slipped and slid toward indifference, and made a virtue of her own mediocrity. As the Democrats discovered just seven months ago, appeals to “political gravity” are proving less and less effective. This time, it was the Right that fell hard to earth.