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Dennis Kavanagh
p. 17-19

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1In her short premiership (19 months to date) Theresa May has experienced the highs and lows of politics. Her tenure divides into two halves. At first, she was lucky and carried all before her. David Cameron called a referendum in June 2016 on whether Britain should remain in the EU. It was a risk but he and most commentators thought his backing for Remain would prevail. The voters thought otherwise and voted 52-48 for Leave. Cameron immediately resigned and opened the way for an election for his successor. His expectation that he would serve until 2020 and then choose the time of his departure had been confounded.

2May, the long-serving Home Secretary and Remainer (“on balance”), was joined by other five candidates in the leadership contest. Her closest rival was Boris Johnson, a star of the Leave campaign. But of her rivals, two were eliminated and three, including Johnson, withdrew, leaving her as the last candidate standing. She was elected without a final contest ; it was a coronation.

3Her biographer Rosa Prince has called her an enigma. It was known that she was serious, the only daughter of a clergyman and orphaned in her early twenties, did not regard politics as a game, made decisions slowly and then stuck to them. She did not gossip and was not much fun for journalists, many of whom spurned lunch invitations. She had stuck to her brief at the Home Office and rarely spoke outside it.

4It was therefore a surprise when she made such a radical speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street on her return from Buckingham Palace and her first day as Prime Minister. It became known as “the burning injustices” speech. She said she wanted to fight against “the burning injustice that, if you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others” and “if you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white”. She was determined that her government would work for the so-called JAMS, “the just about managing” and tackle the vested interest that stood in her way. In her view Brexit was about more than leaving the EU, it was an expression of widespread dissatisfaction with how the economy and society were working.

5Her opinion polls ratings and those of the Conservative party soared. She had sacked a number of prominent Cameron supporters and her version of “modernisation” was different from Cameron’s. She also seemed to have united the warring factions of her party with her Lancaster House speech in January 2017 stating that Britain would leave the single market, the customs union and be free of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice but would look for a new positive relationship with the EU.

6Then came the defining moment of her premiership, the decision on 18 April to call a general election for 8 June with three more years of the Parliament to run. It was a surprise but she had good reasons to call an election. The government had a small majority in the Commons and none in the Lords, she needed a mandate for her policies (the 2015 mandate had been for Cameron’s), a victory would help deal with opponents of her Brexit legislation and, not least, she had a commanding lead in the opinion polls. Success against a weak and divided Labour party seemed assured.

7Of course, it did not go to plan. She proved to be a poor campaigner, wooden and given to repeating robotically slogans like “strong and stable”, but avoiding debates and rationing her availability for interviews. The contrast with the enthusiastic crowds attending Jeremy Corbyn’s rallies was striking. Her party ended up with the largest number of seats but was now short of a majority and had to make an agreement with the 10-strong DUP to pass legislation. Her authority in Cabinet and among her MPs was severely compromised. She was “a dead woman walking”, in the words of George Osborne, the Chancellor she had fired when becoming Prime Minister.

8 She had gambled (as all elections are) and lost. Her luck ran out. It was her decision to call it and the strategic decision to base the Conservative campaign on her personal leadership (“strong and stable”) meant that responsibility for failure was hers. An election was called to increase her majority but it was lost. An election was designed to produce a strong government and certainty and produced the opposite. An election called to give her a mandate for her Brexit negotiations only left her weakened.

9Since the election she has suffered several reversals. Her party conference speech in October was a presentational disaster as she was overcome with a coughing fit and was interrupted by somebody handing her a P40 note for her termination of employment. It was all covered live on television. Her reshuffle of the Cabinet in January 2018 was supposed to show her strength and relaunch the government. But as Cabinet ministers refused to move to different posts her plans were subverted and her weakness advertised. And ministers, sensing her frailty, have felt free to campaign for different versions of Brexit defying her appeals for unity. She clings on as leader largely because the Brexit divisions in the Cabinet and the party are so acute that there is no widely accepted alternative, not least one who can unite the party.

10For long she has not given a clear lead on what Britain will look like post-Brexit. Surprisingly the Cabinet has not yet held a full discussion on the issue. It has been reported that when Ms Merkel asked her what she wanted from Brexit she replied by asking the Chancellor to make an offer. Merkel apparently joked with reporters about the exchange ; no doubt she was also dismayed. The vacuum created by her lack of leadership has encouraged other ministers to campaign openly for their versions of a “soft” or “hard” Brexit. Dissatisfaction is widespread among MPs and, fearful of the prospect of a left wing Corbyn-led Labour government, they seem determined to prevent her leading them in another general election. Recently the cover of the Conservative-supporting Spectator magazine was headed LEAD OR GO. Given the divisions, her caution on Brexit has been understandable. Increasingly, however, it appears that it is indecision rather than caution that is at work.

11The last chance for May to retrieve her reputation is to manage a successful British exit from the EU in March 2019. The mood in her party at present is that if she lasts that long they can then bid her farewell.

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Référence papier

Dennis Kavanagh, « Preface », Observatoire de la société britannique, 21 | -1, 17-19.

Référence électronique

Dennis Kavanagh, « Preface », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 21 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2018, consulté le 17 octobre 2019. URL :

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Dennis Kavanagh

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