If a la Peter principle politicians, too, rise to the level of their incompetence, then in going one step further Theresa May can perhaps lay claim to the title of being the exception which proves the rule. In her six years as Home Secretary May distinguished herself as an instinctive authoritarian who failed to meet key targets and/or oversee meaningful reform. She left behind an under-resourced, demoralised police service, as well as broken immigration system that’s since been caught-up in several scandals. Yet less than stellar record notwithstanding, rather than find her career run aground after a spell in the Home Office, graveyard of political ambition that it’s often said to be, May instead joined a very select club of former occupants who’ve gone on to become Prime Minister.
Winston Churchill and Jim Callaghan, towering figures both, were the only two to do so in the last century. May, however, is no such political giant. Instead, she’s a decidedly mediocre though ambitious politician with longstanding dreams of becoming PM, who through a mixture of good fortune and brazen opportunism seized her chance to wield power in the messy aftermath of the 2016 EU referendum, replacing the departed David Cameron even though like him she found herself on the losing side of the debate. She did so, moreover, following a characteristically ruthless Conservative leadership contest in which the party establishment did for her more colourful rivals—of whom for various reasons none were considered suitably fit and proper—before they even had a chance to face the membership.
Yet despite becoming PM more or less by default, merely by virtue of being the least worst/most grey option, in the months which followed the right-wing press still did its utmost to present May as the experienced, no-nonsense leader difficult times called for. Comparisons with Thatcher were of course made, no matter how superficial. And for a while even liberal commentators gave May favourable copy, especially when it came to her attempts to craft a ‘one nation conservatism’ capable of occupying the supposedly all-important centre ground Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party was charged with vacating. On the face of it it all seemed indicative of a capable and reliable, if not particularly charismatic, politician. Someone, that is, who was arguably just what the country needed.
That said, the unavoidable fact that she lacked a personal mandate still hung over the new PM, especially when it came to that most critical of issues facing the country—negotiating Brexit. Keenly aware of this, and faced with an opposition leader all assured her she would easily rout, following months of repeated denials May did an about turn and called a snap election. History will nevertheless record that in seeking to consummate the marriage she succeeded only in ending the honeymoon.
The Conservative campaign—fought in presidential style, with May front and centre—rested upon the claim, repeated ad nauseam, that she’d provide the ‘strong and stable’ leadership the UK needed. However an election campaign in which she scored own goal after own goal (dementia tax u-turn, personal endorsement of fox hunting, sending Amber Rudd to debate in her place) exposed her as anything but. More than that, as an individual May came off as wooden and dull; a vicar’s daughter and former financial consultant, who appeared completely out of touch with the Britain that exists outside the Home Counties. In fact so utterly awful and devoid of popular appeal was May, that as polling day approached her party was forced to try and shift attention onto the Conservative team and brand instead.
This last-ditch attempt to salvage the campaign didn’t work: Rather than increase her majority, as she’d gone into the election certain of doing, the electorate delivered a hung parliament. Following months of claims by Conservative propagandists that a Labour victory would lead to a ‘coalition of chaos’, the result left a May humiliated by her own hubris little choice but to throw a wad of cash at the exceedingly dubious Democratic Unionist Party, in order to scrabble together the parliamentary support needed to form a minority government. It was a wound that was entirely self-inflicted, that will forever hang over the PM. And since then things haven’t got any better.
First, hot on the heels of the election debacle came the misjudged, arms-length response to the Grenfell Tower fire. This left May looking like the heartless figurehead of an out-of-touch establishment, while a Corbyn buoyed by his unexpected success appeared every bit a man of the people, in his element meeting, greeting and consoling victims, relatives and first responders. Next, after apologising to a deeply disgruntled party for the predicament she’d put it in and sacking the aides who’d guided her down this path, in addition to saying she would from now on serve at her parliamentary colleagues discretion as well as be more open to their influence, May soon squandered any goodwill she’d rebuilt by subsequently stating she intended remain in position and fight the next general election. These blunders were then followed, of course, by that nightmare of a keynote address at the Conservative Party’s annual conference.
When it rains it pours, May must have thought. A speech in which a coughing fit, collapsing stage set and embarrassing practical joke took all the headlines appeared symbolic of a deeply dysfunctional leadership that had no control over events. In turn, the PM’s critics were quick to pounce on the latest in what was fast becoming a series of unforced errors. Talks of possible plots have abounded ever since, as restive members of her own party openly brief against her. Meanwhile, with her standing severely damaged May appears too weak to sack troublesome cabinet members, the foreign secretary Boris Johnson above all, no matter how disruptive their antics become.
The result is that far from being a competent team united behind a strong leader, as per the Conservative electoral pitch, we find a cabinet of chaos, where to the country’s detriment ministers march to their own beat, for their own ends. The Brexit negotiations on which May staked so much are going badly, and without a majority in parliament, the transformative domestic agenda she promised upon entering office has been reduced to piecemeal and often relatively trivial reforms. And if that wasn’t bad enough around every corner now seems to lurk a new scandal or crisis, ready and waiting to engulf an already fragile and directionless government along with its hapless, indecisive leader. A leader, moreover, who now exists purely on borrowed time.
For regardless of whether May’s premiership stumbles on for another month, another year or even until the next general election, and regardless too of whether her approval ratings continue to improve by a little or even a lot, she will never be able to properly recover from the political miscalculations of the past six months. As former colleague turned implacable critic George Osborne noted in the days which followed last June’s general election the PM’s a dead woman walking. Indeed the only thing that’s prevented her party from pulling the plug in the months since is the fear that the disruption caused would pave the way for Labour to return to power.
Thus the woman who became Prime Minister by default remains Prime Minister by default, merely until the right moment arises in which to put her out of her misery.