On July 13 last year, Theresa May entered 10 Downing Street following a bruising referendum campaign and the subsequent back-stabbing of a Conservative Party leadership contest. As our new Prime Minister, she inherited a country and party as divided as ever before in modern history.
The scale of the task at hand was so monumental it could be argued that May was doomed from the start. Uniting a nation split down the middle over the European question, presenting a new vision for Britain through social reform after six years of damaging austerity, and of course, entirely redrawing our current relationship with the continent through negotiations with the EU.
While the enormity of these tasks would be considered far too great for some leaders, Theresa May had many supporters at the start of her premiership. As a person and a politician, she was considered to be in possession of the attributes required to make a success out of the situation and steer Britain free of the domestic political turbulence and choppy waters of Brexit.
Firstly, May was considered by many to be a grown-up politician. Her comfortable rural upbringing, Oxford education and time spent as Home Secretary rendered her a mature and sensible candidate for Prime Minister. The contrast appeared stark between herself and the shambolic Labour Party, that following the referendum was also more preoccupied with leadership battles than it was the country.
Of course, from the off May had her doubters within the Conservative Party; there were those that staunchly believed that the Prime Minister should have been a leave voter. By appointing the most prominent Vote Leave figures into high offices and making high-profile sackings of those close to David Cameron, she was soon able to convince the Tory-right and conservative press that she had converted from reluctant Remainer to arch Brexiteer.
Those who saw May as an able candidate pointed to her record as Home Secretary, of which she was the longest serving for generations. The systematic approach she employed to her remit and refusal to engage in the headline-hunting, point-scoring games of today’s politics showed that she was the safe pair of hands needed to manage Brexit.
For some, the appeal of the second female Prime Minister was rooted not in pragmatism but nostalgia as the press peddled similarities between May and Margaret Thatcher. Just as Thatcher waged war on the Trade Unions in the 1980s, we were referred to May’s annual battles with the Police Federation where she first threatened to “impose change”, and then returned to accuse them of scaremongering over budget cuts. For these loyal fans, this was evidence that May had the stomach for the fight ahead with Brussels. The Daily Mail sought to convince its readers that this was the second coming of their heroin; last October they headlined of May: “This Lady is Not for Turning”. In January, May had the “Steel of the New Iron Lady”.
Whatever the true merits of these appeals, when aggressively juxtaposed with the infantile leftist, “Britain-hating” “terrorist sympathisers” on the opposition front benches, May was left with a poll lead of 17 points when she announced a snap election on April 18. After months of insisting that securing a mandate of her own was not necessary, it became evident that this lady was for u-turning after all. With the pollsters assuring her she was safe, and with almost the entirety of the printed media fighting her corner, May smelt blood. The inevitable landslide majority would wipe out the left for a generation, and “crush the saboteurs” of Brexit for good. Theresa May, as Oscar Wilde quipped of himself, was shown to be able to resist everything except temptation.
How ironic it remains, that on her walking holiday in Wales, the vicar’s daughter succumbed to one of the seven deadly sins: greed – an inordinate desire to acquire more than one needs.
Of course, we all know what followed, perhaps the worst ever election campaign fought by a governing party and the snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory. May’s political standing has disintegrated ever since; the New Iron Lady has been reduced to a zombie Prime Minister, a prisoner of the Conservative Party, the occupier of a vacant office. “A dead woman walking” as George Osbourne described her with the bitterness of a sacked Prime Minister in waiting and the zealotry of a convert. He has realised that revenge is a dish best served through daily editorials.
The admirable leadership qualities possessed by Mrs May are now considered to be her greatest flaws and architects of her downfall. The top-down organisation that she had used at the Home Office appeared as undemocratic control-freakery as ministers forced the sackings of toxic advisors Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. The methodological nature of her approach was seen as a rigid roboticness and a lack of both the charisma possessed by those before in Blair and Cameron, as well as the authenticity of Jeremy Corbyn. Where she could get away with making limited public appearances as Home Secretary, the refusal to appear in debates with opposition party leaders came across as unaccountability, complacency and even cowardice.
While May’s decision to call the election was only a poor one in hindsight, unfortunately for her hindsight is not a gift that she will be allowed by the media or her political opponents. She now cuts the figure of a politician hopelessly out of her depth, in limbo while her party consider who to replace her with and how to go about getting rid of her. Just as Icarus was described in Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus, May’s “waxen wings did mount above her reach, and melting, heavens conspired her overthrow”.
Yet still, she limps on. We are left with the ever more likely prospect of the no-deal, cliff-edge departure from the EU, the increasing possibility of a Marxist Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the likes of charlatan Boris Johnson and the medieval Jacob Rees-Mogg being tipped as future candidates for the top job. We are assured that HMS Brexit is sailing safely on course whilst being forced to witness what I shall call Tory Egocentrism – the inability to differentiate between the interests of the Conservative Party and that of the United Kingdom. I would stop shy of not being content until May is chopped up in bags in George Osbourne’s freezer, but we really don’t have much to thank her for.