It was thought that Theresa May had played the perfect game. She managed to win the Conservative leadership election without the thing turning into an election. She managed to do it without lifting a finger. Everyone seemed very impressed.
They said she had inner steel. She seemed personally tough and politically canny. It was almost as though she had the hardness deemed necessary not only to govern the country, but also to steer the ship of state through the oncoming uncertainty of Brexit and so much else.
This judgement was based on a few central contentions. The first was that May had exhibited an incredible astuteness in allowing her Conservative opponents to embarrass or eliminate themselves individually. She simply watched while the other leadership candidates fell victim to scandals, backstabbing, or self-destructive stupidity.
It was also suggested that her unwillingness to be drawn on matters European was an advantage. Her relative reticence during the referendum campaign was held up as something upon which she could base an inclusive ministry. May brought the colourful figures of the leave campaign into government. She gave them important jobs.
Then she did her best impression of a woman not long dead. At the despatch box in the House of Commons, May set about attacking Jeremy Corbyn. She agreed with his criticism of ‘unscrupulous bosses’. She laid it on rather thick. And then came the crunch.
May leaned forward; she took a breath; and, lowering her voice an octave, she completed the set-up for her lame joke. ‘Remind him of anybody?’ she asked. Tory MPs paused. They thought for a moment, hoping that the appointed day had come. They heard the resemblance and understood and appreciated her pose and took it in. Then they exhaled, issuing an initially uncertain but eventually full-hearted jeer en bloc.
It was a moment not to be forgotten, but it was also somewhat pathetic. Not quite as pathetic as the man standing opposite her in the Commons seemed in that single moment, however. For a brief island in time, as the new Conservative premier demonstrated her relief and collapsed back onto the government benches, she seemed more powerful and secure than any politician had a right to be in such a divided country.
Journalists said she looked more than promising. Male Tory politicians swooned. The inevitable comparisons mounted. Didn’t she sound like Thatcher? Didn’t her carefully chosen line and no-doubt practised mimicry pay off?
In a more than usually nostalgic nation, this sort of thing has to be expected. In a country which has seemingly signalled its determination to pursue a nostalgic (not to say quixotic) foreign policy, this cannot be a surprise. To a country which has been getting smaller and less powerful every year, whose fading image is burnished not with real successes but calming lies about Olympic medals, the past can be reassuring. But nostalgia is at heart not a policy at all. As a form of treatment, it can only be palliative.
And the illusion is losing its lustre, even for its political proponents. Where once May’s apparent savvy in combining economic populism and a rightward lurch in other areas may have seemed likely to guarantee her victory in the next general election, a new obstacle has emerged. She is simply ineffective in PR terms.
A seemingly unimportant but representative example: where David Cameron once appeared to ‘win’ Prime Minister’s questions every week, his successor struggles. May fails weekly to live up to the over-excited expectations her first performance elicited. Her answers are unsteady. She looks almost frightened, and relieved to get it over with at the end of each session. And she does so against one of the weakest parliamentary performers in living memory, a man who leads a disunited party, a man with little electoral appeal, a man who seems to have little political nous and no inclination to acquire it.
Moreover, the PM exhibits immense vacuity on Brexit. This is the issue on which she was deemed a safe pair of hands. It is incredibly important; its course will be complex; but all we are told is that ‘Brexit means Brexit’. The phrase is fatuous yet it is one someone actually sat down and wrote. Ditto May’s assertion, earnest and overwrought and delivered with mock solemnity, that she wants a ‘red, white and blue Brexit’. ‘That is’, she elaborated, ‘the right deal for the United Kingdom’. Someone actually sat down and wrote that line, too.
The Thatcher comparisons, already strained, have begun to die down. But no doubt May, for reasons of comparison and others, will persist with attempting to appear unnecessarily tough and strong. This may mean isolation in and from Europe. It may mean more of what we saw last week: Britain attempting to slap down its most important ally, the United States, over a speech John Kerry made about Israel.
Perhaps Theresa May was trying to echo Donald Trump, in order to begin on a strong footing when he begins his time in office. That is the charitable explanation. It would have been good politics but a terrible policy. Even this seems unreal; optimism can only stretched so far before it becomes delusion.
Once it was confidently predicted that the Tories would be in government for a decade. At the same time, there was a sense – a slender sense, but a real one – that Britain might begin reaping the benefits of surviving the great recession and attempting to be fiscally prudent. There was talk of an ‘Osborne supremacy’. The former Chancellor was not popular, but he was an impressive operator. May, newly elevated to the highest office in the land, got rid of him in a fit of pique.
And she reversed his fiscal ambitions; no longer will the Conservatives strain towards a budget surplus. This makes a mockery of every plea for budgetary discipline, every platitude about tightening belts.
But perhaps, May might think, if she keeps sounding tough, keeps affecting a personal, emotional hardness, perhaps on immigration or Europe or something else, some of the light from the memory of premiers past may be reflected on her. After all, this remains a nostalgic country. There may still be space for a leader who lives in the past.