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.
There is a stronger argument that it was May’s conduct of a campaign built around herself that invited the defeat. She herself was a poor candidate — stilted, stiff, dull, and unspontaneous rather like Hillary Clinton — and she oversaw the writing of a manifesto that alienated older voters (an important pro-Tory voting bloc) by removing social benefits they receive and proposing a so-called “dementia tax” to pay for social geriatric care. When this aroused a storm, she promptly reversed course, thus removing her claim to be a new kind of adult “strong and stable” leader. And this was happening at the very moment when Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn was winning the votes of those between 18 and 25 with a proposal for the state to pay student debts. It was an inept and self-destructive campaign that assumed the Tories could take such risks since they were bound to win.
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.
As a result she was unable to make the kind of effective attacks on Corbyn’s crankish economics in which Thatcher specialized against Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock. Yet that is now very needed. A wild and erratic spirit of socialism is again loose in the world. Corbyn is the perfect spokesman for this aggressive left-wing ideology because his gentlemanly reasonableness disguises its ruthless nature. It needs to be confronted with tough, intelligent, forensic criticism, not appeasement. Mayism is not that and will, fortunately, evaporate quickly when she goes.
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.