Nicolas Webb reflects on Theresa May’s leadership, and the challenges facing the Conservative Party
Image credit: Theresa May. Picture by Annika Haas (CC BY 2.0)
The tide had turned. Whereas once I heard sympathy from Torys and non-Torys alike for a Prime Minister trying to deliver the near impossible with a polarised public and an obstinate Parliament, more recently the tone had become one of resignation. Still relatively little anger, more frustration and the conclusion that this simply could not go on.
It was not greatness that Theresa May sought, it was productive public service. In many ways, such an approach was in keeping with the tradition of Tory pragmatism, but such attributes can seem distant in an era in which the priority is to be seen to outflank your colleagues on ideology. To some, there is no Brexit which is ever going to be hard enough.
Today, the overused slogan of “a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few” lacks depth or strategy, but when it was first deployed there was a passionate desire to improve the life chances of those who faced barriers to equality of opportunity. This was the mission that May saw as delivering for leave-voting ‘left behind’ Britain. Sadly, the noble ambition was soon overtaken by Brexit machinations and then largely forgotten after the debacle of the 2017 General Election.
I recall thinking in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire that the tragedy would permanently change politics. It continues to surprise me how little it in fact did change. The horror and grief were shared across the country. However, polarised politics actually acted against the country coming together in united action. Empathy matters for political leaders. However, the politicised attacks on the Prime Minister for supposedly not showing sufficient emotion were unfair and cruel. Where she did fall short was in her practical response to the tragedy. The stories of the people from Grenfell starkly demonstrated that the country did not work as it should for everyone. Political leadership could have responded not just to the tragedy but also to give renewed momentum to improving social mobility.
One cannot remove Theresa May from the context of the political turbulence. Few would have thrived in the situation. However, she made unforced errors. It was inconceivable that EU citizens would not be allowed to stay in the UK after Brexit, but giving the guarantee mattered. As May made her first speech as Prime Minister, the inclusion of a simple confirmation that EU citizens’ rights would be protected would have transformed the tone of the debate which followed. Red lines were set out with little thought as to the practicality of their inclusion in a final agreement. As they inevitably fell by the wayside in the latter stages of negotiations it left much for opponents to take aim at. One bizarre and counter-productive priority during Mrs May’s time in office appeared to be a desire to do everything differently to how it had been done by David Cameron. The context matters, but so do the decisions taken and they were too often poorly made. How can one not challenge the judgement of someone who flies the British press to the beautiful city of Florence only to speak in front of a predominantly blank screen backdrop?
Mrs May was largely admired for her ability to survive in post as Home Secretary, a role which had been a career killer for many of her recent predecessors. Now though, I wonder if it was that role which played a part in creating the inflexibility which marred her time as PM. How did the modernising Party Chairman who identified that the reach of the Conservative Party was limited by those who viewed it as the ‘nasty party’ become the Home Secretary who deployed the simultaneously offensive and useless ‘go home’ vans? Perhaps, the challenges of the Home Office, in which decisions of security require a strong line with advice from a small pool of experts, led May to act as a PM with too few advisors and a belief that portraying strength was always the solution.
Mrs May’s successor will inherit a party in worse shape than she did. It should not be underestimated how much damage Brexit has done to the Tory Party. If it is no-longer the natural home for Anne Widdecombe (now Brexit Party) or Lord Heseltine (whip removed for declaring he’d vote Lib Dem), for Annunziata Rees-Mogg (now Brexit Party) or Neil Carmichael (now Change UK) one has to ask who is it for and what is its purpose? The business-minded Conservative vote may not have deserted the Party yet due to unattractive alternatives, but that context will change. A question mark hangs over whether the party is still a natural choice for a classical liberal as has been the case during recent decades.
As it has struggled, the Conservative Party has become a defensive and reform averse organisation. Unnamed spokespeople appear to brush away concerns such as those raised by Melanie Owen recently. A new leader will surely revitalise the Party’s polling to some extent, but the longer-term structure of the Party needs urgent action. Away from structural reform the new leader would do well to inject a fresh intellectual inquisitiveness into the Party. To break through the tribal quagmire, there needs to be a broad-based membership encouraged to ask open questions and engage in constructive debates. Of course, one person cannot achieve all of this, so look not just at who is running to be the next leader, but who else is in the team around them. Never under-estimate the ability of the Conservative Party to rapidly reinvent itself. There is an opportunity for real reform and a Party to emerge in touch with modern Britain which can crush a Corbyn-led Labour Party in an election, but to do that the next Prime Minister will have to carry the membership and public with them in a way in which Mrs May was unable to.
Britain has lost a committed public servant from the highest elected office in the land. While her successor can learn much from the mistakes made, she or he should also take a moment to consider the humble dedication which motivated Theresa May.
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