The cause of Theresa May’s troubles is no secret: When in April 2017, despite repeated assurances she had no intention of doing so, the Prime Minister went against her word and called an unnecessary general election, she did so because she was convinced a landslide victory would be the inevitable result. From this position of strength the woman some elements of the media were already stylising as the second coming of Thatcher intended to silence her internal critics, annihilate what remained of a Labour Party in the grips of the far left, before then delivering the ultimate coup de grâce: Ramming Brexit through a recalcitrant parliament. History would record May as an all-conquering leader, who in a time of transition, rife with potential peril, rose to the occasion and saved Britain from disaster. Cometh the hour, cometh the woman.
That, at least, was the plan. As is so often the case, however, pride comes before the fall. Still enjoying the last of the honeymoon period that followed her rise to power, and faced with an opponent all assured her she’d easily defeat, a May so complacent she bordered on the arrogant seriously miscalculated the balance of political forces in the country. She fought a disastrous campaign, marred by repeated own goals, in which as a result she increasingly lost ground to the supposedly unelectable Jeremy Corbyn. The whole episode was an unforced error—or perhaps more accurately a series of unforced errors—which cost May her majority in the Commons, along with her reputation, though as of yet not her job. Instead May has stumbled on as a zombie prime minister. A dead woman walking, in whom few believe, who’s achieved little in terms of policy, who survives only for as long as her party’s fear of a Corbyn government remains greater than their disenchantment with her.
Have we reached this tipping point? Faced with several high-profile resignations, open talk of plots against her and constant press speculation about civil war around the cabinet table, it’s hard to see May remaining in power for much longer. Hers is a failing leadership, nowhere more so than on the big issue of the day. Indeed May’s dithering over Brexit, the attempt to keep everyone on side by delaying the major decisions about leaving for as long as possible, is directly responsible for the predicament she now finds herself in. Yet while her inability to chart a clear course has sapped what little authority she had left, taking the dissatisfaction of the anti-EU wing of her party to boiling point in particular, the problem her rivals face is that if they move to soon they have little to gain. Far better to let the mess that is Brexit play out then lead the rescue effort rather than try to take command of a sinking ship. This appears to be the Labour leadership’s thinking too. In effect the PM has become the perfect fall guy (or gal!) for the many problems related to the UK’s decision to leave the EU.
Because of this May will survive for the moment. In fact day-to-day survival has arguably become the defining characteristic of a premiership which promised so much—not just on Brexit, but on a range of other issues too—but at least so far has delivered so very little. Perhaps as some do we can compliment the PM’s resiliency if nothing else. More to the point, however, her situation is the political equivalent of being on death row. Trapped, appeals exhausted, left to carry the can for a crime she didn’t commit but nevertheless volunteered to take responsibility for, all May can now do is sit and wait for the date of her execution to be announced. In Theresa no one trusts. In Theresa no one still has any real hope. Yet while both she and the country are resigned to her fate, the time to put her out of her misery has still not quite been reached.
Postscript: Could May exercise what little power she has left over her future and resign? In theory it’s possible. In reality, however, May will continue on. In part out of a misplaced sense of duty. Perhaps more though because she knows she would be judged very harshly for jumping overboard at this point in time. All the more so given that she volunteered to captain the ship following David Cameron’s departure. For this reason, barring something drastic and unforeseen occurring in the meantime, May will not step down before the autumn—when parliament returns, the date of leaving the EU nears, and in all likelihood the real battle for Downing Street will truly commence. In this respect the stage has been set and the leading role assigned. All that now remains to be seen is who will fill the ranks of the supporting cast in this unfolding tragi-comedy that is contemporary British politics.