From Macmillan to May: how Europe brings down Tory PMs
With echoes of Heath and Thatcher et al, here is the series of events, strategy and personality that brought Theresa May to the end of the road
How will history judge Theresa May, the latest Conservative UK prime minister brought down by Europe? First, it will acknowledge that she was handed a poisoned chalice in June 2016 when David Cameron walked away from the wreckage of his referendum campaign. Such a close vote to leave was never going to be easy to deliver, especially for someone who voted to stay in the EU.
True, she was never an enthusiastic Remainer and her unwillingness to surface in the campaign beyond one major speech earned her the derisive sobriquet “the submarine” in Downing Street. But while they were torpedoed by their own hubris she took the spoils even from those who had actually campaigned to Leave.
A premiership that arguably should have been Boris Johnson’s by rights was snatched from him amid Brexiteer feuding. May, a “safe pair of hands” in the Home Office – traditionally a graveyard for political ambition – found herself saviour of the party. She was elected unopposed when her remaining rival for the leadership, Andrea Leadsom, withdrew. May was never required to pitch to party members and therein, perhaps, lay the seeds of her future difficulties.
It was not immediately apparent that she was a spectacularly poor communicator. Indeed, her speech in Downing Street on the day she became prime minister was confident even if it did not seem especially Tory, at least not in the post-Thatcherite sense. It seemed to hark back to a type of paternalistic Conservatism not heard for some time. She promised to tackle “the burning injustices” that afflicted many in the country and to which the Brexit vote was ascribed. Her constituency was the “just about managing” families and her watchword was “a mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone”. They were noble sentiments but even then it was apparent that she would be hard-pressed to push through an ambitious social programme when she had to deliver Brexit.
At the time, two-and-a-half long years ago, it might not have seemed such a daunting task. May seemed not to have appreciated how all-absorbing it would become. In her first address to the party as prime minister in October 2016 she announced without cabinet discussion (something that would become a trademark) that the process for leaving would begin the following March. This would start the two-year clock, which runs out on Friday but, as we all now know, is still ticking.
It is said that May announced the date in order to have something to say at the conference without first making sure the country’s Brexit ducks were all in a row. To begin with she had intended to use executive powers to trigger Article 50, but this led to her being bogged down in a protracted legal battle that ended with the supreme court ruling against the government. It was an unnecessary distraction, one of many. When it came to it, however, the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to begin the withdrawal procedure.
May set out the sort of Brexit she wanted in a speech at Lancaster House which was praised by most in her party since it marked the complete breach with the EU they wanted to see. But she then made a fateful error. Armed with a perilous majority of 12 seats bequeathed by Cameron, she called a snap general election in a bid to increase it. The rationale was good: Labour looked dead and buried; the Tories were miles ahead in the polls; her personal ratings were sky high: who would have done anything different? But the campaign was a fiasco.
It caught MPs on the hop, and the manifesto, by which such store is now placed, was cobbled together – and parts of it were jettisoned when they came under sustained attack. May was encouraged by advisers to personalise the campaign and capitalise on her apparent popularity. But her “strong and stable” slogan, repeated ad nauseam, never recovered from the manifesto debacle and, indeed, came to parody her challenge.
Ironically, she won a bigger share of the vote than any Tory leader since Margaret Thatcher in 1983, but lost her majority. She also lost her two closest advisers, which for a prime minister who was woefully short of allies in the Commons and with no ideological followers to sustain her, was to prove a grievous blow.
What she did have was prodigious stamina, remarkable given her type 1 diabetes, a condition often exacerbated by stress, and an exceptional sense of her own rectitude. A lesser mortal would have been floored by the election setback but even though she toyed with resigning she soldiered on. She told the same 1922 Committee before which she fell on her sword on Wednesday night that: “I’m the one who got us into this mess and I’m the one who will get us out of it.” But if anything she got them in even deeper by the way she negotiated with the EU.
The rest of her domestic agenda, set out with such confidence in July 2016, was sidelined while all efforts were expended for a deal that would get through parliament. However, she lacked some of the requirements for the task, not least clear communication of her intentions so everyone knew where they stood, or an ability to reach out to others in her party, in parliament or in Europe. Rather than make Brexit a national event she turned it into a narrow partisan matter to be argued about among Conservatives to the exclusion of others and to the great detriment of her own party.
Brexit was not meant to be an internal Tory affair, even if David Cameron initially called the referendum to manage divisions in his own party. It was a binary national choice with many Tories voting to stay and Labour supporters opting to leave. The Brexit process needed a leader capable of bridging the divide, not one intent on widening it.
This concatenation of events, strategy and personality came together to produce the inevitable denouement at Westminster on Wednesday night. She has reached the end of the road.
Vernon Bogdanor, the constitutional historian, argues in a new book that five Conservative prime ministers have been felled in part or in whole by Europe. Harold Macmillan’s government never recovered from the French veto in 1963. Edward Heath lost the two 1974 elections narrowly, with the Common Market issue playing some part in his demise. The events leading to Margaret Thatcher’s downfall in 1990 were triggered by her response to Europe’s federal ambitions that resulted in the Maastricht treaty. This in turn haunted her successor John Major throughout his premiership. David Cameron was brought down by a referendum he called to put the issue to bed once and for all.
May’s fate demonstrates what a forlorn hope that was.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)