Magazine | July 10, 2017, Issue

Theresa May’s Failure

Overconfidence and bad campaigning created a Tory disaster

The Battle of Carrhae did not go well for Marcus Crassus. Having determined that the Parthians were weak and divided, Crassus sensed a golden opportunity to run up the score for Rome. A victory, he believed, would fill the Roman coffers; tarnish the reputation of his bitter rival Pompey; and, to the potential benefit of his son Publius, cement his position as a great historical figure. It all looked so easy.

As it happened, the Romans were crushed. Having selected quite the wrong tactics, mistaken the nature of his victories hitherto, and relied much too heavily on his sense of superiority, Crassus walked straight into a wall. His army was swiftly wiped out; the Romans lost territory — and face; and, to add insult to injury, he was brutally killed at the peace conference.

Something similar happened recently to Britain’s Theresa May.

May is the prime minister of the United Kingdom — at least she was at the time this was written — and in April of this year she made a dramatic tactical mistake for which there is no obvious political analogue. Convinced that her popularity was the product of her nature rather than her honeymoon in the office, and persuaded by the press that her opponent would prove unelectable, May called an early election, to be held on June 8, in the hope that she could engineer a broader “mandate” for her agenda. And then she blew it.

Driving around England during the week running up to the vote, I was bewildered to see the Tory party attempting to build what could best be described as a cult of personality around their leader. Americanized though their elections have become, the British in fact do not have a presidential system but rely on the same parliamentary scheme they have enjoyed since 1688. Alas, one wouldn’t have known that from the pitch the Conservatives made. Bringing to mind Donald Trump’s now-famous insistence “I alone can fix it,” voters in the United Kingdom were asked by every flyer and billboard to believe that the only safe pair of hands in the land of Gladstone and Orwell belonged to a figure who had landed accidentally in Downing Street. Theresa May: Standing Up for Britain, read vague signs that would have once advertised the Conservative party and its policies. Worse still, every would-be Tory MP had willfully rendered himself a drone, the apparent selling point for each being a willingness to “stand with Theresa” and her “strength,” “resolution,” and “safe pair of hands.” Around the redoubtable Teresa of Calcutta, such a display would have been overkill. Around Theresa May, the patron saint of mediocrity, it was borderline farcical.

Given the speed at which politics moves in the 21st century, it was also strategically ill advised. One can certainly comprehend the temptation: When the leader is more popular than the party, it makes sense to shift the focus. But it does not take a prophet to grasp that centering a whole campaign on one person is akin to running a whole hospital on a single fuse. While it works, everything’s dandy. When it doesn’t, you’re in trouble.

And so it was to be. Margaret Thatcher had a saying: “Being powerful,” she proposed, “is like being a lady; if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” So, too, it turns out, is being “resolute,” “strong,” “sensible,” and all the rest of the ghastly poll-tested adjectives deployed to puff up Mrs. May. In the inner sanctum to which May likes to restrict herself, it seemed to be believed that merely to repeat those words incessantly was magically to make them true. But it wasn’t — especially when the evidence so dramatically contradicted the claim. Inexplicably, May declined to attend the one televised “leaders’ debate,” and on the haughty grounds that political discourse was in practice so much “squabbling.” So much for bravery. Awkwardly, she backed off a central manifesto promise within days of its publication — a first in the modern era. So much for courage. Arrogantly, she went bluntly negative on her opponent and repeated the word “Brexit” as if it were talismanic. So much for appearing as the obvious choice.

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour party, is a socialist and a crank. He is a disciple of Karl Marx, an IRA sympathizer, and a friend to foreign tyrants. This is a man who looks back at the 1970s — with the chronic nationalization, the rampant unions, the stagnation and malaise — and thinks, “Well, that’s when they had things right.” He is, in short, a menace. And yet, somehow, he is ascendant. (The bookmakers in London have him odds-on as the next PM.) Rarely has there been a better opportunity for a party to make its case than the Conservatives had. Rarely has that opportunity been so disastrously, embarrassingly squandered. For most of the campaign, Mrs. May ignored policy completely. And, when she did deign to discuss it, she sounded cold, aloof, and bored. As should be fairly obvious, “I’m not the crazy one” is not a winning message, and neither, for that matter, is “I’m all things to all people.” In our restless environment, beige is an emetic. Theresa May was beige.

One can make some reasonable-sounding excuses for the present fortunes of the Conservative party. One can argue that the polls predicted a landslide and that Mrs. May merely followed their advice. One can propose that the surprise return to a two-party system in which the Conservatives and Labour are dominant once again was a development that couldn’t have been — and, indeed, wasn’t — anticipated. One can even spin the numbers into a credible silver lining: May might have lost ground, but she won the largest share of the vote since the smashing Conservative victory of 1983; Corbyn might have gained ground, but in any other year his share would have been low enough to mandate resignation. Ultimately, though, that is so much fluff. At a critical time in British history, the prime minister gambled and lost. That is the story of this election.

How serious is the loss? Going door to door in Yorkshire, a candidate I was shadowing would explain that this was “the most important election in a long while.” Typically, this is a trope designed to motivate the indifferent. This time, though, there was something to it. In the best of eras, a Corbyn government would have damaged the United Kingdom. But at this moment — in which Britain is determining how to position itself in a post-Brexit world? The best hope for the U.K. is that it can turn itself into an Atlantic Singapore — a place with low corporate tax rates, a thriving financial sector, and a legal and regulatory framework that pleases investors across the world. If Britain can make itself vital, it can call the EU’s bluff: “We don’t need your nasty little club,” it will be able to say. “We’re Britain.” It cannot do that with Jeremy Corbyn near power. Jeremy Corbyn is now near power.

As for the future of Brexit, the irony is palpable: Bizarrely, May is weaker today than she was when she complained about her weakness. The election was called for one reason only: to accord May a mandate before she begins negotiations in Brussels. Ostensibly, the prime minister wanted “the people” behind her, to ensure that her calls would be seen as representative. In truth, she wanted a buffer against the fractious, purist Euroskeptics in her own party. She got neither.

How important will that prove to be? Less than we’ve been led to believe, I’d wager. Certainly, Brexit itself is not imperiled. Jeremy Corbyn started to recover in the polls when his party made its peace with the referendum’s outcome, and, in a survey conducted post-election, 70 percent of Britons said they want to see it done. To renege now would be political suicide. But the devil, as so often, may hide deep in the details. Having watched the chaos unfold in London, the Europhiles are elated and empowered, and they will presumably try to roll Mrs. May in any way they can. There will be a deal. Whether it’ll be a good one remains to be seen.

A few hours before I left England, a friend of mine joked that this result was unprecedented. “When else,” he asked, “has a supposedly safe pair of hands done worse than expected against an insurgent candidate talking about change?” Not everything must be brought back to Trump, but the line stuck nevertheless. In our present climate of dissatisfaction, the “safe” choice is often perceived as the riskier one — especially when there are effectively only two options to choose from. Theresa May is the prime minister of the United Kingdom because those who objected to Britain’s leaving the European Union believed that they could win a political fight by tarring their opponents and pretending to be even-keeled. That, as an active choice, May elected to make the same mistake that had pushed her into Downing Street in the first instance is almost beyond belief. Next stop: Prime Minister Corbyn?

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