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From the editor's desk > Prime Minister May puts herself to the test

19 April 2017

Prime Minister May puts herself to the test

Nothing is certain in British politics, but the start of the 2017 General Election campaign is a good moment to assess the probabilities. And they strongly favour Theresa May. Whether they favour the people of the United Kingdom is another matter, likely to be hotly disputed between now and 8 June. They undoubtedly favour democracy itself. In a number of respects the parliamentary system has been weakened by recent events. An election should pull things together.

The present Conservative Government was elected under David Cameron’s leadership in May 2015 on a manifesto that has become largely redundant since the European Union referendum. The manifesto which won him the election set out no clear vision for Britain’s place in the world, if and when it decided to leave the EU. This meant there is no democratic mandate for Britain’s negotiators to follow, and everything depends on some contentious interpretations of what the referendum result really meant. Was it a vote against immigration, in which case, immigration from where? Was it a vote in favour of the UK’s continuing membership of the single market, on the grounds, to quote Labour’s EU spokesman Sir Keir Starmer, that “people did not vote to make themselves poorer”. Was it a protest against political elites in Westminster and Whitehall, or against the dominance of London and Cameron and his clique, or even a spasm of nostalgia for a Britain of coal mines, grammar schools and heavy industry? Or was it a protest against inequality and globalisation? Nobody knew, though plenty said they did. Now May’s own interpretation of what the vote meant is to be put to the electorate. They will have the opportunity to endorse it, or reject it.

This will help to rectify part of the democratic deficit which is a worrying feature of the current political scene. May has no personal democratic mandate, apart from being elected as an MP on Cameron’s manifesto. She succeeded Cameron painlessly and unopposed, without even having to win an internal Tory Party election. She has subsequently ditched many of Cameron’s promises, including George Osborne’s deficit reduction plan. Yet this is what, rightly or wrongly, people voted for in 2015.

All this was weakening her position, for instance vis-à-vis the Scottish Nationalists – who have a clear electoral mandate – with whom she is at odds regarding the UK’s terms for leaving the EU. To win an election herself would also strengthen her position if and when the unelected House of Lords tries to hinder the progress of her EU negotiations. May is emerging as a strong-minded leader, and has even been prepared, in defiance of a Westminster taboo, to wear her staunch Anglican faith boldly on her sleeve. And the public seems to like her – she is currently more popular than the party she leads.

But the fundamental question remains: will strengthening the position of the Prime Minister really serve the national interest? With a larger majority she will have less need to listen to her critics, or to take note of wobbles in the polls, and so on. She could become more domineering, insisting her way is the only way – the “Erdogan syndrome”.

The coming election is likely to make for healthier politics on the other side of the House of Commons. Labour was led in the 2015 election by Ed Miliband, and his successor, Jeremy Corbyn, has yet to have his baptism of fire at the ballot box. The opinion polls show what a mountain he has to climb, with only seven weeks to overcome a deficit, against the Conservatives, of around 20 per cent. This will be his one chance to show his critics that he has what it takes to win; and it is also the first opportunity for the public at large to pass their judgment on his leadership.

May may be bringing an end to the Corbyn experiment of trying to lead the Parliamentary Labour Party while simultaneously fighting it tooth and nail. That should be good for parliamentary democracy too, though it may not be so good, in the short term at least, for the careers of Labour MPs with small majorities. An election in June is also an opportunity to correct the injustice which befell the Liberal Democrats last time, who seemed to be punished for the Coalition Government’s faults while being given no credit for its successes. They are the only party outside Scotland and Northern Ireland with a clear pro-EU stance, which will give them a valuable advantage in some constituencies over Labour.

The core doctrines of May Conservatism will now be put to the electorate. She supports Brexit, but exactly what kind of Brexit remains uncertain. She does not trust market forces to deliver a fair society; but she does not much care for the welfare state either. If “compassion is not one of our words, dear”, as Denis Thatcher once reminded his wife, then “solidarity” is not one of hers. This has to be the major reservation when it is suggested, as the former Tory minister Michael Gove has done, that her political philosophy owes a great deal to Catholic Social Teaching.

May tends to show compassion somewhat selectively, as witness her pioneering work against the modern slave trade while child refugees stranded at Calais do not seem to move her. She also seems curiously disengaged from three crises in the public services on which “ordinary working families” – her target audience – rather depend. The National Health Service is deteriorating rapidly; budget cuts are causing havoc in the state school system; and, in local government, funding has been cut to ribbons with serious consequences, for instance, in social care facilities for the elderly and infirm. The danger to the common good is that winning a large majority on 8 June could be translated as a mandate for more of the same. She needs to wear not just her faith on her sleeve but a commitment to social justice: Christianity means solidarity or it means nothing.

May is more vulnerable than she might think, and a decent opposition would give her a run for her money. It may yet, but at the start of the campaign the odds do not look good.

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