Incredible how one year makes a hell of a difference to a person, isn’t it? Theresa May’s sail to the Conservative leadership was on par with a luxury liner gliding the Greek coast. Less than 12 months later, her tenorship has a greater reminiscence of a tug boat in the stormy Irish sea.
When the former resident of 10 Downing Street (Mr Cameron) bailed out of the top job as a result of the EU Referendum, it was a certainty that Mrs May would win. Several years as the Home Secretary had given her good ground for understanding how top level government actually runs. Her supporters claimed she would be a strong leader with a different style to her predecessors – no backhand deals, no political favourites; instead a straight talking, no nonsense woman as leader of the United Kingdom government. She won by default; two candidates were eliminated in the leadership race and two others withdrew.
She boasted in parliament that the Conservative Party did a lot for women – ‘they just keep making us Prime Minister her words were’ to rapturous applause. At the time of her first PMQ’s session, there had been the turmoil in within the Labour Party surrounding Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership; Mrs May even ‘joked’ about Corbyn being an unscrupulous boss. The clearest of evidence of what would follow in the 2017 General Election campaign.
The latter half of 2016 was certainly strong for the ‘new iron lady’ – her posture, her body language, her speeches were all strong. The result? Her popularity soared. So what went wrong?
The first of the big U-turns was on the election itself. In the months before, she had continuously claimed an election was not needed. There would be no general election until the end of the parliament. 18th April 2017 – Mrs M stands outside 10 Downing Street and announces a snap general election to be held on June 8th. A clever decision at the time – Labour still in disarray, Theresa May’s popularity very high. It was hers to lose. And she did.
Calling the #GE2017 (at least the first of 2017) had critics frothing at the mouth, accusing her of backtracking and going against her previous promises. She had already vocally criticised the Scottish National Party (SNP) for seeking a second independence referendum, citing that it was not the right time given the brexit negotiations. Mrs May’s argument had weakened; yes, she was holding the election before June 19th when the talks formally begin, however, the SNP argued that the PM had insisted no talks on a new referendum for Scotland could begin until Britain had left the European Union. The air had already began to thicken with the smell of contradictions.
The biggest problem for the PM was the way she handled the campaign. Hers was a very personal affair – ‘me and my team’ was a frequent message. The snipes at Jeremy Corbyn and his team, as well as other political parties, showed how much she had misjudged the public mood to this election. The PM made it clear the election was about giving ‘her’ a mandate for the brexit talks and strengthening her hand by having a greater majority. All that despite already having a Conservative majority in the House of Commons. THere appeared to be a definite shift from the politics of bygone era which Theresa May was clinging on to; there was a feeling that political parties should work together on issues such as brexit, the health system, and infrastructure. Sadly for Mrs May she made the campaign about herself, badgering on about how strong a leader she is compared to others. She made the election result a judgement not on her party and government but on her personally. This clip from Channel 4 News gives a sense of the snipes made in the final week of #GE2017:
The facial expressions, the choice of language. It is all wrong. This is a Prime Minister acting like the school playground bully. The cavalry behind give her support with the boos and hisses.
The Labour Party campaign was far from perfect yet it was certainly more positive with lots of rallies and talk about their funded policies. Mr Corbyn turned the fortune of the party and the heads of his critics. He engaged voters, the young particularly. For the first time in many years, the Labour opposition seemed to be united behind a manifesto; yes, some of the things were eyebrow-raising such as the cost of scrapping tuition fees and funding the re-nationalisation of the railways. But was there slyness and witch-hunting that seemed to dominate the Conservative campaign?
Sure, there were other stumbles too. The U-turn on social care following a wild backlash. It’s claimed her two closest advisers took responsibility for the shambles. But there is only one person who gives the go ahead and chooses what words to speak – the PM. The responsibility falls with her.
She is not a naturally good speaker when it comes to interviews. Mrs May starts one sentence and usually ends with another, interluded by an awkward stumble of words. When it became apparent that the PM isn’t as good as we may have thought when thrust in front of the cameras, many saw it as a weakness. ‘Ahh that’s the reason why she’s not doing the TV debates’ many will have thought. Coupled with the dredging out of tired soundbites such as “strong and stable”, certainly the attitude of simply repeating words without any real meaning or explanation grated on voters.
June 9th. Theresa May’s snap election goes against her. Rather than retain the majority she already had, she lost it. Where Labour were already written off, they gained seats. The PM stood outside Downing Street and did not acknowledge the very personal failure she had just endured. Sweeping the issue under the carpet. Voters don’t forget. #GE2017 was overshadowed by the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London. The mood turned from brexit to the home domestic issues such as security, policing, health services, and so on. Her time as Home Secretary led to the cuts in police forces we see today – Greater Manchester Police confirmed that they do need extra officers to keep the public safe. Voters don’t forget.
When Gordon Brown was PM in 2007, his popularity increased when he dealt with the terrorist attack on Glasgow Airport and the foiled attack in London. A matter of weeks in to the top job, there were calls for him to call a snap election and secure a Labour victory. The mood was different in this latest campaign. Three terrorist attacks in just a few months with Mrs May as leader and protector of British citizens. She came under fire for why these attacks could happen on her watch, and subsequently questions about whether her actions in the past had led to a less safe Britain. Voters do not forget.
The ‘coalition of chaos’ that May had warned about if SHE had lost her majority was now the problem on her plate. A strained Theresa May looked very different from the popular and powerful-looking leader who became PM in 2016. She gambled. She lost. Her calls of Corbyn being a puppet propped up by the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon had backfired. Her political attacks and misjudgment of the voter mood had backfired. Her credibility gone.
Within days, the terrible events of the Grenfell Tower fire has become her latest challenge. Forced to run to her car and avoiding questions from the crowd of residents of Kensington and Chelsea showed her weakness. The community affected by the fire, the charities, the victims, the families, the now homeless, they all needed their Prime Minister in a time of despair. Their Queen and Prince William spoke with those directly affected by the fire; the Prime Minister faced a backlash after meeting the emergency services. Only the day after meeting the emergency services did she visit the hospital where few of the victims were being treated.
In contrast, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan were on the scene, hugging victims and listening to what they had to say. This was about measuring the mood of an area that have had their voices unheard for too long. It is right that they want the questions of why this fire happened answered immediately. Their PM bundled away into a car, stern-faced and cold. Again, she misjudged the public mood and anger. They needed their PM to answer and assure them. She acted too late.
A Prime Minister who can misjudge the national feeling on several occasions is one in need of a dire cold shower. The landscape of politics has changed too. Voters are unengaged by political mud slinging and playground taunts. Theresa May had everything she needed on a plate – popularity, majority, credibility. Now, almost all of that had whimpered away. The scene is a Prime Minister who’s mistiming and irreversible mistakes have cost her big time. She could have gone down as one of the greatest PM’s in history if she had played her cards right. But ‘Play Your Cards Right’ is a gameshow and there is always a loser. Her political career will be tarnished by the events of 2017 and anything she does say and do will be judged and alluded to the mistakes she made.