Calibrating May’s Defeat – And Ours

Mike Phipps reviews May at 10, by Anthony Seldon, published by Biteback

Theresa May’s government was a catastrophic failure. The prime minister called an unnecessary election – and lost. Her 1,106 days in office saw 35 ministerial resignations, unprecedented in modern times. Coming fifth in the EU elections of 2019 with 9% of the vote was the worst Conservative result since 1830. Senior ministers repeatedly broke Cabinet discipline without sanction. Above all, this government failed on the very terms it set itself – to exit the EU.

Why this failure? Anthony Seldon’s book, based on scores of interviews with key players carried out by an army of researchers, provides a partial answer. May failed because she was unable to draw on the wisdom of those around her and line up key colleagues in advance of difficult Cabinets. Part of the reason for this was a simple personality flaw: she was a loner, with few long-term friends or allies, and little family to fall back on. She wasn’t particularly interested in people, but, rather like Gordon Brown, thought that exemplary delivery would win support for her cause – as if politics ever worked like that.  But in any event, the delivery fell a long way short of exemplary.

Even running for the leadership in 2016, she had little knowledge of her Conservative colleagues. In theory, six years in the Home Office should have been sound preparation for the top job. In fact, it wasn’t: “the Home Office is a bunker.”

Her tin-eared approach was demonstrated by her very public rupture with Chancellor George Osborne, ticking him off even after she had sacked him and making an enemy of someone who would go on to edit the London Evening Standard and use his considerable media firepower to her detriment. Her decision to make her unpopular Home Office advisors Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill joint chiefs of staff at Number 10 backfired, as they continued their old habits of briefing against senior ministers, provoking resentments that would be acted upon later. Appointing Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary and Philip Hammond as Chancellor were also poor moves, given how badly she subsequently got on with them. Former Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood thought the relationship between May and her Chancellor deteriorated more quickly than any other he had known: it took “just days”. So little did she know the Conservative MPs that most of her junior ministerial appointments were left to her Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson. She rebuffed proposals that she should get to know her backbenchers better. No prime minister since Attlee had less interest in the press. One insider called her “the least collegiate prime minister I ever worked with, worse even than Brown.”

The strategic failures over Brexit are worth exploring. Firstly, setting up a Brexit department created friction with the Foreign Office and Number 10, where much of the policy would be made. Secondly, she sided with hard Brexiteers in her party while failing to prepare for no deal. Thirdly, announcing a date for Article 50, to trigger exit from the EU, destroyed her leverage in relation to Brussels. But the biggest error by far was a failure to understand that both the close nature of the referendum result and the parliamentary arithmetic meant that only a very different, softer Brexit than the one she pursued would have been possible.

To break out of this arithmetic, May called an early general election in 2017. Part of the reason she lost it was her own behaviour: divided leadership of the campaign, the U-turn on social care, her failure to be statesmanlike and empathetic after the Manchester bombing, her wooden campaigning style and dodging of the televised leadership debate. But there are more fundamental reasons, and one of the consistent failings of this comprehensive book is its failure to look beyond May and her immediate circle at what was happening elsewhere. The 2017 general election result, which saw a surge of support for Labour, and the Conservatives reduced to a minority government, was not entirely unforeseeable. It is astonishing that no Number 10 insider could comprehend the enormous popularity of Jeremy Corbyn following his election as Labour leader in 2015, the packed meetings he addressed in small towns across the country and the trebling of Labour Party membership to become the largest left wing force in Europe. The “youthquake” of 2017 did not come out of the blue and expressed not just a growing hostility to the failed economic policies of the previous seven years but a demographic shift that meant Labour was now able to win unprecedented numbers of younger voters, many from a socio-economic background that has not traditionally supported the party.

None of this was on Conservative HQ radar so the 2017 general election turned out for May to be a horrible miscalculation that effectively sealed her fate, although the drama would drag on for another two years, the bulk of her premiership. Osborne’s verdict that she was a “dead woman walking” was entirely accurate. Characteristically, her first act after the debacle was to demand the resignation of her chiefs of staff, scapegoats for her failure. She would be greatly weakened and unprotected without them. Characteristically too, she never saw them again.

Losing her government’s majority made May’s job immeasurably harder. Talks began with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to secure a working arrangement in the House of Commons. The seasoned negotiators of the DUP understood how valuable they were to May and were determined to extract a high price – “They had pound signs in their eyes,” said one official.

May survived in office, largely because no rival wanted the poisoned chalice of power just yet. She again demonstrated her complete lack of empathy, this time over the Grenfell tower disaster, and had a dire party conference, with letters falling off the backdrop behind her and someone who had slipped through security presenting her with a P45 during her leader’s speech.

A series of Cabinet resignations over various failings and offences – Michael Fallon, Priti Patel and Damian Green – weakened her further. The replacement of Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, accused of sexual harassment, by Gavin Williamson was described as “ludicrous” by one government backbencher. The replacement of Amber Rudd, after she misled Parliament over the WIndrush scandal, by Sajid Javid as Home Secretary, put May in a minority in a crucial Cabinet committee on Brexit. The only hopeful note for May at this time was the turning of opinion polls against Labour, principally over how Russia should be handled in the wake of the Salisbury poisoning, as hostile tabloids began to rehearse the smears against Jeremy Corbyn’s patriotism that they would deploy so relentlessly in the 2019 general election.

Again, the remarkable thing about May’s post-2017 strategy was her utter refusal to modify her position on Brexit following the loss of her majority, compounded by her inability to deal with her opponents. A critical turning point was the Chequers Away Day on July 6th 2018, where Johnson called her Brexit proposals “a turd”. The fragile unity she attempted to choreograph fell apart within 24 hours, with both David Davis and Boris Johnson resigning from Cabinet, the latter plainly for career reasons. Henceforth, aided by Dominic Cummings, he became much more focused in his plot to replace May as prime minister. Equally scheming was Dominic Raab, Davis’s short-lived replacement as Brexit Secretary, who resigned within weeks, despite knowing exactly what he had signed up for.

The misplaced hope that EU negotiators would make further concessions on the terms of the deal to leave was widespread in May’s inner circle, which also began to shrink at this time as a sense of ‘bunker mentality’ took over. Yet EU chiefs knew that Parliament would always block No deal – as it did. May’s forlorn attempts to convince MPs to back her deal lest two mutually exclusive outcomes ensue – either No deal or no Brexit – failed abysmally.

By the end of 2018 May was running out of rope. In December, the House of Commons found the government “in contempt” for refusing to reveal the Attorney General’s legal advice on Brexit. Fearful of losing it, May cancelled the parliamentary vote on her deal. The anti-EU Tory faction, the European Research Group, organised – and lost – a no confidence vote in her leadership. As collective ministerial responsibility began to fracture, May lost the first meaningful parliamentary vote on her deal by over 200 votes. She survived a Commons vote of confidence.

May made concessions to the ERG, which dismayed Brussels and Dublin. She retreated – the ERG organised to defeat her in the Commons. Three Conservative MPs defected. She lost the second meaningful vote. In March 2019, 13 government ministers defied the whips yet kept their jobs. The House of Commons Speaker ruled out a third meaningful vote on the same proposition in the same parliament. “Bollocks to Bercow,” responded the Sun.

May made a televised speech blaming MPs, which opponents saw as an attack on parliamentary democracy itself. The Commons took control of the Brexit agenda – and then in a series of ballots voted against all options. May told the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs that she would quit her job to get Brexit through. This was another mistake; she gave away her premiership yet got nothing back. A third meaningful vote went down to a heavy defeat.

On April 2nd, after a seven hour meeting, Cabinet agreed to open talks with Labour, which they saw as the least worst option available. That really was the end: two ministers resigned and Tory members across the country cut up their membership cards on social media. However big the crisis, May had done the unthinkable: by inviting the Labour front bench in for discussions on how to resolve it, she had in one stroke destroyed the entire carefully constructed strategy of delegitimizing the Official Opposition, undermining a four-year campaign coordinated across all parts of the Establishment from Tory-supporting tabloid newspapers to military chiefs, who had all challenged Jeremy Corbyn’s fitness for office. A month later, the 1922 Committee told May to go and briefed the media they were drawing up a timetable for a leadership election. To her further humiliation, May’s pleas to be allowed one more party conference as leader were dismissed.

These are the facts, and while Seldon’s book is accurate in suggesting that May’s failure to understand what kind of Brexit she would be able to get through Parliament led to her downfall, there is nonetheless a more interesting question for socialists: could Labour have acted differently on the issue in order to head off the election defeat of 2019?

Some Party activists have suggested that Labour should have voted for Brexit to get it out of the way so that the 2019 general election could have been about issues less divisive for Labour voters and members. There are several problems with this analysis. First, to have called for a vote for May’s particular form of Brexit would have collaborated in creating the bonfire of workplace rights and environmental safeguards that would follow leaving the EU. Secondly, it would have split the party down the middle, with most members and MPs opposed to Brexit. Thirdly, with some Labour MPs already breaking the whip, any attempt to impose a hard Brexit on the parliamentary party would have provoked not just more defiance but possibly a challenge to the leadership, Fourthly, it was only in April 2019 that the May government indicated a preparedness to negotiate with Labour – but there was no real willingness to move towards Labour‘s proposal for a permanent customs union. Worse, the government was by now falling to pieces. Seldon suggests that Labour’s front bench was in intransigent pre-election mode, but the reality was that the talks ground to a halt when May’s own departure was being briefed to the media, with no commitment that any agreement reached would be honoured by her successor.

Shoud Labour have adopted a different position to the compromise it made with itself over Brexit? Leavers say it should never have floated the idea of a second referendum, which indicated contempt for the 2016 verdict of the voters. Remainers say Labour should have come out for a People’s Vote earlier, pointing to the slump in the Labour vote in the 2019 EU parliamentary elections and the rise in support for Remain parties such as the Lib Dems and the Greens. The debate will rumble on in relation to the 2019 general election, but two things should be borne in mind. Firstly, Labour’s position on Brexit was not seen by voters as the principal reason for rejecting the party in 2019. Secondly, whatever position Labour might have adopted, it would probably not have changed the course of events prior to the election, which were not controlled by the party’s leadership.

The assumption that if Labour had somehow got Brexit out of the way, it could have fought the general election on different terrain overlooks the obvious point that, with Brexit done, there may not have been an election in 2019 at all, or 2020 or 2021. Johnson gambled in 2019, but he would have preferred to call a general election when the polls could give the Tories a clearer lead. True, it would not have been the ‘Brexit election’, but the mobilisation of nationalist sentiment and the weaponisation of the Labour leader’s patriotism are themes that the Tories have used repeatedly in the past and are still exploiting now post-election. We shouldn’t be surprised: the rise of authoritarian nationalist conservatism is a global phenomenon challenging social democratic parties across the world.

Perhaps Labour made a more strategic error – mistaking the disintegration of the May government, which Seldon’s book brings to life exceptionally well, for a more generalised crisis of the ruling class. Such a comforting belief, coming on the back of Labour’s near-win in 2017, may have fuelled a feeling that ‘one more heave’ would be enough to elect a Labour government. With hindsight, we can see we were a long way from that and much more political and practical preparation was necessary after 2017 to make it possible. Furthermore, the absence of industrial struggle or a more generalised upsurge against government policy over the last nine years should have told us that there was something fundamental missing in the combination of ingredients that might bring a socialist government to power. Instead, we suffered a colossal defeat – and one from which we have to learn lessons.