Inside Story

Britain’s velvet regime change

The post-Brexit rise of Theresa May is fleeting balm for a troubled country, says David Hayes

David Hayes 14 July 2016 2152 words

Thorough, focused, discreet: Britain’s new prime minister, Theresa May, shown here with Surrey County Council leader David Hodge. Surrey County Council

“It is a very difficult country to move… a very difficult country indeed, and one in which there is more disappointment to be looked for than success.” The speaker was Benjamin Disraeli, Britain’s prime minister in 1868 and 1874–80, who laid the intellectual foundations of modern Conservatism by opening the minds of his Victorian-era peers to the “social question.” That set the Tories on the way to becoming, as the former senior minister Michael Heseltine loves to say, the most successful political party in the history of democracy.

This process happened over decades, in step with social change and the expansion of the franchise. It was girded by empire, jolted by war, bolstered by the press, and punctuated by splits (1846, involving Disraeli himself, 1903, 1990s) and shattering defeats (1906, 1945, 1997). Throughout, the party never stopped regarding itself as the truest representative of empire, union (of the United Kingdom) and nation, even as these respectively disappeared, frayed and diversified. The Tories, especially at the grassroots, may often seem aged and shrunken, indeed out of step. Yet their own difficulties somehow keep aligning with the country they seek to govern.

The latest episode in this recurrent drama is now unfolding, its context the UK’s political switchback ride, both exhilarating and alarming, of mid 2016. The ride began with the majority vote to leave the European Union in the referendum of 23 June, continued with David Cameron’s resignation as prime minister after six years, and was joined by a split in the Labour Party. Then, on 11 July, it leaped over a gorge when the favourite in the race for the Conservative Party leadership, home secretary Theresa May, became the winner by default.

In an instant, a race that was scheduled to finish in early September was over. Within minutes, Cameron’s two-month goodbye was squeezed into two days. By Wednesday, the velvet choreography of British regime change was in train: the last prime minister’s question time in the House of Commons, coordinated trips to Buckingham Palace by the departing and incoming premier with respective statements outside 10 Downing Street, and top appointments to the new cabinet, all to an avid media accompaniment.

When things do move in the old country, they can move with lightning speed. Britain was already stunned by Brexit, whose psychological and constitutional adjustments are nowhere near settled, and gripped by the political turmoil it unleashed. Now, fortuitously – or perhaps impelled by a deep political logic – the Conservative Party, whose hunger for power is its defining attribute, has again seized the controls and begun to map the road ahead. What’s more, Theresa May has promised a classically Disraelian, “one nation,” journey. Admittedly, that’s what almost all Tory leaders now do.

It was Harold Wilson, Labour prime minister in the 1960s–70s, who famously said that a week is a long time in politics. Since the Brexit shock, the maxim needs a revision to a day or even an hour. (The Telegraph’s beloved pocket cartoonist Matt captured the atmosphere beautifully in a conversation between two students: “I’m studying politics. The course covers the period from 8am on Thursday to lunchtime on Friday.”)

Peak velocity was reached twice, the more recent on Monday when energy minister Andrea Leadsom withdrew from the Tory leadership contest, leaving May the only woman standing. That truncated a contest defined by its equally riveting prelude on 30 June, a spectacular coup by the victorious pro-Brexiteer Michael Gove against his campaign buddy Boris Johnson. The cerebral Gove’s cutting assessment of Johnson’s inadequacies (in work rate, leadership and team-building) kyboshed the latter’s launch an hour later, but his own move for the top job – which controverted a decade’s assurances that he was not worthy – earned him the hatred of the Johnson fan club and, more damagingly, a reputation for treachery among the Tory faithful.

The no-hopers Stephen Crabb and Liam Fox had been eliminated in the first round. Gove’s poisoned candidacy now left him trailing not just May but also Leadsom, resulting in his elimination. The little-known Leadsom had impressed in TV debates on the Brexit side, and now channelled the hopes of the Tories’ more aggressive anti-Europeans, social conservatives and assorted headbangers (categories that very much overlap). Already on the defensive over an inflated CV, in a nervy interview with the Times’s Rachel Sylvester she repeated her campaign trope that motherhood gave her a stake in the future – which, by implication, the childless May lacked. That it took another day for her to quit was a further sign of both her naivety and the zeal of her backers, some of whom muttered about dirty tricks.

This oddest of interregnums was over in another blink. Graham Brady of the 1922 Committee – the Conservative backbenchers’ inner sanctum – announced that May had won, vaporising the September deadline and leaving Cameron to do the decent thing by setting a date for the handover two days hence. His vaudeville farewell in the Commons had all the elements of a British invented tradition, refining Margaret Thatcher’s in 1990 (a year after TV cameras entered the chamber) and Tony Blair’s in 2007: knockabout jokes, effusive sentiment, applause. The demob-happy Cameron compared Jeremy Corbyn to Monty Python’s limbless black knight (“It’s just a flesh wound!”) and mocked Labour’s leadership quarrel: “We got on with it – resignation, nomination, competition and coronation. They haven’t even decided what the rules are yet!” By his dim lights, Corbyn made a decent fist of the occasion.

By 6pm on 13 July, the Queen had seen off Cameron, the twelfth premier of her reign, and invited May, the third born after it began, to form a government. Minutes later, on the steps of Number 10, May struck the same distinctly centre-left note as had the speech in Birmingham that was intended to launch her leadership campaign. She deprecated unequal life chances, and discrimination on grounds of race, gender, education, mental health and class, before addressing people who are “just managing.”

“The government I lead will be driven,” she said, “not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours. We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives. When we take the big calls, we’ll think not of the powerful, but you. When we pass new laws, we’ll listen not to the mighty, but to you. When it comes to taxes, we’ll prioritise not the wealthy, but you.”

A curtailed Tory contest gives Theresa May precious time to work on a huge international agenda (Brexit, global trade, Islamic State and terrorism, global security, climate change) and domestic program (the economy, Scotland, immigration, and that social justice mountain). It also pitches the UK’s second woman prime minister into office before the public has become truly acquainted with her. By contrast, Margaret Thatcher had been opposition leader for over four years before her general election win in 1979. The closest recent comparison is with the unobtrusive John Major, who defeated more prominent candidates in 1990 to become Thatcher’s successor, before winning an election on his own account in 1992.

True, May was home secretary from 2010 to 2016, and made a rare success of a high-profile job with forbidding responsibilities for internal and border security, immigration, energy and the police (where she pushed through reform against bullish resistance), as well as “legacy” issues involving child abuse and police malpractice. She had also worked closely with ministerial partners in Europe, and had cautiously favoured remaining in the EU during the referendum.

Yet this fifty-nine-year-old clergyman’s daughter from Eastbourne on England’s south coast, who studied geography at Oxford and worked at the Bank of England before becoming a member of parliament in 1997, is a private politician in a hyper-public age. Among the uncertainties now is how she adapts to the performative and “always on” demands of an impossible job.

Her reputation has been that of a thorough, focused, discreet and quietly effective minister who doesn’t gossip or plot, and who inspires loyalty among her core staff. But also “not good at broadening out the circle of trust,” says the Financial Times’s George Parker. An “ice queen,” is the pro-Labour Mirror’s verdict, though “an adult” and “serious” are descriptions frequently heard from non-partisan sources. Her invitation to Conservative members in 2002 to overcome its image as the “nasty party” was revealing and salutary, if still a work in progress.

The gregarious ex-minister Kenneth Clarke was caught by a microphone – not that he gives a hoot – saying that Theresa is “a bloody difficult woman” though also “tough, pragmatic,” which only added to her lustre. She is also a strong supporter of increased women’s representation in politics, for example as co-founder of the party group Women2Win and promoter of the first Girl Summit (on female genital mutilation and child, early and forced marriage, in 2014).

Many are tempted to predict that May will befriend Angela Merkel, another pastor’s daughter. That has a touch of Brexit denial about it, one of the stages of grief that her early cabinet decisions might well help dispel. The morning papers had anticipated a march of the women, which only the appointment of the combative pro-EU voice Amber Rudd as home secretary (and thus May’s successor) was justifying by day’s end. Instead, an evening chill arrived with a trio of right-wing, male anti-Europeans: Boris Johnson as foreign secretary, Liam Fox at international trade, David Davis as Brexit minister. “Inspired choices,” said the megaphone populist Nigel Farage of the last two appointments.

The plain logic was to uphold May’s insistence that “Brexit means Brexit.” Except no one knows what that means. She is unlikely to wish the three musketeers enough rope to hang themselves. For many others, not just among the 48.1 per cent who voted to stay in the EU, that will be the least of their worries. May’s entry to Number 10 included a potent reminder that her “Conservative and Unionist Party” – its full title – seeks to be custodian of the “precious bond” between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But the Johnson, Fox and Davis tribute band will play well with Scottish nationalists.

Such appointments indicate a proper desire to brand the new government as her own. George Osborne, the chancellor and strategic anchor of Cameron’s government, is out, to be followed by Philip Hammond’s departure from the foreign office (where a swashbuckler now replaces this “safe pair of hands”). If that raises the risk threshold, it also fuels the case for an early election, which May herself called for when Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair in 2007. That would need to overcome the absurdity of the fixed-term act of 2011 – the former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg’s rope gift to parliamentary democracy – via a government-engineered confidence vote against itself, for example.

That’s most unlikely in the short term, not least because progress on Brexit is a priority, but it is possible when Theresa May has capital of her own in the bank. The condition of the Labour Party will be a factor in her calculations. Labour’s deep split may become formalised in the coming months. Much depends on the outcome of the challenges to Corbyn’s leadership being mounted by Angela Eagle and Owen Smith, who with twenty-one others resigned from his shadow cabinet in late June. The result will be known at a special conference on 24 September.

David Cameron’s last exit from Downing Street, sweet family in tow in an echo of Brown’s farewell in 2010, is an abrupt end to an indefinite era. His last words in the Commons as premier (he intends staying on as an MP) were a rueful reference to his jibe at Blair in 2005: “I was the future once.”

His “tussle with destiny, and against the inevitability of failure” is over. Theresa May is the future now. Her “mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few” sets a high aim. Benjamin Disraeli and the ghosts of the Tory past will be looking on with a keen glint. And perhaps not only those. For whether or not she proves a woman for the times, England certainly has need of one. •