Theresa May, having just been to see the Queen, delivered an outstanding address on the steps of Downing Street capturing the mood of the country and securing her position within her party. The only problem? I am referring to her speech on becoming Prime Minister, not her speech following the election.
Her speech on becoming Prime Minister outlined a positive vision which understood what the referendum result meant. It referred to deep challenges facing Britain which ordinary people care about. It focused upon mental health, discrimination, job insecurity and the darker side of globalisation. As a result, it demonstrated a prime minister who listened, who cared and who understood. Theresa May undermined this entire agenda with her campaign, and that is the biggest tragedy of this result.
I wrote before election day about the problems of the Conservative campaign, but the destructive effects of it cannot be underestimated. In political science, a key question is if voters vote on the basis of policy or competence. This election demonstrates both are critical. Theresa May campaigned solely on her own competence, whilst demonstrating little other than incompetence. Jeremy Corbyn, conversely, campaigned solely on policy. The result was a near tie in vote share.
Yet May could have offered the voting public much more than her “strong and stable leadership”. More than David Cameron, she had a vision to offer the public that spoke to their problems. There was a sense that there existed some emerging vision of how Brexit might fit into a wider change to British society.
This election campaign was devoid of this sentiment. An agenda focusing on the problems of ordinary people was ditched overnight in favour of an arrogant campaign to give unlimited power to Theresa May. Theresa May was popular because she spoke to people with respect and looked capable. A sensible campaign would have understood this and built a policy agenda for her to sell. Instead policy was largely ignored, and the few they could create looked cruel and uncaring. The Conservatives’ retail offer was fox hunting, a ‘dementia tax’ and ending free school dinners.
The Tory party discussed Brexit only in the context of who should negotiate it rather than the detail. Voters saw Brexit as a proxy for a rebirth of British society, a mechanism for delivering the change they craved. Theresa May saw Brexit as a proxy for her leadership qualities to shine through. Consequently, voters turned to Jeremy Corbyn. Whatever its faults, the Labour manifesto captured the sense of change and offered concrete ideas for delivering it.
Thus, the Conservative campaign failed to understand that May’s popularity was contingent on her agenda. They assumed May was popular because she was some form of political goddess. She was not. By ignoring voters and policy, she undermined her own political success. A politician whose support came from appearing to listen to voters and have the answers to their problems could not survive such an appalling misguided campaign. Time and again I heard three key complaints repeated by voters;
- “We didn’t need this election”
- “She won’t even show up to debates!”
- “She’s just a typical Tory, I see that now”
By calling an election which was obviously unnecessary, she demonstrated putting her own power before what voters wanted. The result: her image as someone who put the ‘national interest’ first was tarnished. By then refusing to show up to debates in such a brazen manner, she only bolstered this. Finally, by delivering such a poor manifesto she removed any positive reason voters had for voting Conservative. People who had never voted Conservative and felt almost guilty about doing so needed something to make them feel able to vote Tory. Instead she seemed determined to give them a reason not to vote Conservative through policies which confirmed their worst fears.
Theresa May is finished as Tory leader. Moreover, her misguided attempts to prop up her government with the DUP seems destined to re-establish the Conservatives as the ‘nasty party’ in voters’ eyes. It is only the fact that Article 50 has been triggered which is maintaining her in office.
Her domestic agenda is also dead as cabinet ministers cease control of their policy areas. In the long run, this is an even worse result for the Conservatives. No one else is offering any ideas on the issues at the heart of the Brexit vote. Most Brexiteers perceive the referendum result to be a vote for some libertarian ideal which would return the Conservatives to Blair-era results. Boris Johnson offers little but his own personality for voters to digest, which works in a mayoral contest but not elsewhere. Few other ministers appear to have the stature to emerge as a leader and May has few allies to defer to. Consequently, Mayism, the first Tory ideology in years to offer credible change, is dead. That is the biggest tragedy of this election result.