Theresa May, a politician of obvious skill and determination, may be judged Britain’s least successful post-war prime minister. It is worth examining why this “own goal” has befallen the Conservative Party, not despite her political talents but because of them.
The problem was not her “inept” election campaign. It is true that she led a characteristically arrogant one, with herself at center stage and most of her cabinet gagged, hoping to monopolize the credit for the impending landslide.
But as some pointed out at the time, by no rights did she have any claim to become PM from the start. Not only was she on the wrong side of the Brexit referendum that had just delivered the clear popular will; more urgent today is that she had a very questionable record as Home Secretary at a time when Britain faces serious terrorist attacks. To obtain office, she and her supporters spun an ideological narrative that rationalized moving the Conservative Party even further to the left than David Cameron had already moved it and on issues that had nothing to do with the referendum that had decisively expressed sharply more conservative views on a single critical matter.
One year later, we see the fruits of her coup. The popular mandate (whether referendum or election) was the Conservatives’ to lose, and they lost it spectacularly. Mrs May did not achieve this on her own. Someone should now be pointing the finger at the senior leadership and ask why they chose her in the first place. (The rank and file certainly did not choose her.) By all rights, the logical and legitimate choice would have been Michael Gove, who combined unambiguous conservative values with proven judgement, or at least some other Brexiter like Andrea Leadsom. No election would have been necessary, since, being on the winning side of the Brexit referendum, Gove or Leadsom could have claimed a mandate without one, but any subsequent election would have been a straightforward contest between Conservative values and Labour’s throwback to the 1970s. Can anyone doubt what the outcome would have been?
So why did the Conservative Party elite plant this time bomb against itself a year ago? Two small reasons and one big one:
First, the divisions and diffidence among Tory MPs led them to be seduced into non-British political tricks. A popular referendum is highly manipulable, as Mrs May’s faction demonstrated. Unlike the Parliamentary government that is Britain’s forte, no one need take responsibility for the outcome, and all can spin it as they please. France could employ this device successfully in the 1950s and 1960s, because of the enormous authority of Charles De Gaulle, who explicitly took full responsibility for his plebiscites, including the last one that precipitated his departure from public life. British politicians have turned to referenda not to take responsibility but to avoid it. The result is now chaos, as the vague and conflicting mandates of referendum and election leave no one in charge, with the possibility of another election within months that could bring the far left to power or otherwise fail to restore stability.
Second, the Tories tried to move left to take up the ground they presumed had been vacated by Labour’s far-left “implosion,” only to find themselves outflanked by Labour on the European Union and terrorist security. In this they were really imitating the leftward drift of the Christian Democratic parties of Europe, who founded the EU and dominate it to this day. In this respect, Mrs May was not beating the European elites so much as joining them.
This leftward shift would normally be predictable politics (though it always risks cutting the party off from its membership, as it clearly has done here). The big factor – and the one that reveals the deeper significance of this election beyond allegedly incompetent campaigning – is not that the Tory leadership moved the party left but how they moved it left: not toward the Old Labour turf of nationalizations and socialism, but to the New Labour and Liberal Democratic politics dominated by sex.
The larger problem is the ideological trajectory of Mrs May’s politics ever since she entered Cabinet. Rather than secure her country against terrorist attacks (about which election commentators now seem suddenly silent), Mrs May spent her years as Home Secretary chasing radical feminist bugbears that posed a threat to no one and nothing except the rule of law: “domestic violence,” “sexual assault,” “human trafficking” and the all-encompassing if vague “violence against women.” Now we see the concrete cost of pandering to this nonsense and of the cowardice that refuses to stand up and declare that the Empress has no clothes. Can anyone doubt that this election is a referendum on a PM and Home Secretary who fiddled ideologically while her country suffers an onslaught of death from the truly violent and vicious?
Yet now it appears that some have learned nothing. The new heroine of the Tory left appears to be Amber Rudd, who engineered Mrs May’s putsch by savaging Andrea Leadsom (a woman far more connected with the Conservative heartland), largely for her traditional Christian faith and family values. Replacing May with Rudd, after this election result, makes as much sense as replacing Cameron with May.
Now we get what may be poetic justice, with the Tories dependent (reminiscent of John Major’s government) on the conservative Democratic Unionist Party, whose first-mentioned condition involves the same-sex marriage that also strangely preoccupied Mrs May during her tenure as Home Secretary (confirming her thralldom to the sexual left). Consistent with the argument presented here, the Tories’ headache will now be brokering sexual issues – today’s political vanguard everywhere – between the DUP and the Conservatives’ sexual radicals like Rudd and Ruth Davidson. Despite predictable hatchet jobs against the DUP even among ostensibly conservative newspapers like the Daily Telegraph, it is vividly clear (for example, in the comments section of the DT attack article) that many conservative voters throughout Britain see them as the UK’s true Conservative Party.
Stephen Baskerville is Professor of Government at Patrick Henry College. His book, The New Politics of Sex, will be published by Angelico.