The British have a penchant for women leaders: Queens Elizabeth I & II, Victoria, Margaret Thatcher, and now Theresa May. The current Prime Minister isn’t just well liked: People seem to love her. Conservative MPs report that, when canvasing for the general election, voters stop them to say how proud they should be of her. Thus, the Conservatives have pretty much given up putting themselves as a party in their literature: They are campaigning as Theresa May, and either you’re with her, or you’re back to that beardy socialist Jeremy Corbyn. It looks like a winning strategy.
The media understand why May trumps Corbyn, but we don’t always grasp what makes May so popular. She is somewhat dull in manners and robotic in her speech. When she tries to make herself convivial—by talking, say, about her love of baking or shoes—she sounds flat. She can make Hillary Clinton seem like somebody with whom you’d want to have a beer. What most Westminster journalists cannot fathom, however, is that May’s negative charisma is a potent weapon. In an age when everybody despises slick politicians, her doughty awkwardness strikes a chord. She is in fact good at those pally breakfast TV sofa interviews precisely because she is bad at them. The British are comfortable with awkwardness, and they respond positively to it.
Moreover, May taps something in the tight, puritanical British psyche. For men, her appeal may even be psychosexual, if you’ll excuse the amateur Freudianism. When a certain type of Anglo-Saxon male hears May promising Jean-Claude Juncker, her chief adversary in the E.U., that she will live up to her reputation as a “bloody difficult woman” in the Brexit negotiations, he experiences the same sort of frisson that he felt when Margaret Thatcher said of herself, “The Lady’s not for turning.” Tory MPs have already taken to calling her Mummy, which tells you a lot about Tory MPs.
Nor is it just red-faced right-wingers who respond positively to May’s stubbornness toward the Continent. Even some who voted “Remain” in the election, who think Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union is a catastrophe, can’t help but feel stirred when May lays down the Brexit gauntlet before the bureaucrats of Brussels. It speaks to the nation’s historical memory: She becomes Elizabeth the warrior queen defying the Armada. In other words, limey jingoism runs deep.
May’s allure is political as well as personal. She is, under the influence of her intellectual advisor Nick Timothy, pushing Britain toward what may well be the new political middle ground in the developed world. The May Way is meant to be a 21st-century third way. She is “triangulating,” as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton did, though this time not between free markets and socialism, but nationalism and internationalism.
This seems shrewd. Most Western politicians and pundits shout “protectionist” or “racist” at anybody who expresses anxiety about hyperliberal politics, economics, and immigration policies, and then act horrified when populist parties do well at the ballot. May, by contrast, is adapting. She is changing Toryism to accommodate these 21st-century popular concerns. This means upsetting the most capitalistic factions within her party—those who cling to Thatcherism as religion are especially unhappy—but it doesn’t mean accepting full-bore Trump (or Marine Le Pen) antiglobalism. In her party manifesto, for instance, May promised to cap energy prices and force companies to put workers on boards. Even mainstream Conservatives are uncomfortable with such obviously Labour ideas—quite a few center-right commentators noticed the similarities between May’s manifesto and that of Ed Miliband, the failed Labour leader whom right-wingers derided as “Red Ed.” But Tory pragmatism dictates that they accept, because Mayism seems to be working. May is on course to gain a handsome majority at worst, and some polls suggest she could end up with the largest postwar majority of any British prime minister. That’s largely because the traditional Labour vote has collapsed in the north and many of the poorer parts of Britain. In recent elections, many poor whites have swapped Labour for the United Kingdom Independence Party, which campaigned against the E.U. and mass immigration. But now May, posing as champion of the people and Brexit, is shooting UKIP’s fox. Her party looks as if it might win in traditionally Toryphobic seats such as Wolverhampton North East and Aberdeen South. May’s predecessor, David Cameron, spent years trying to detoxify the Conservative Party by making it politically correct—more eco-friendly, pro-gay-rights and multicultural. May bothers less with all that, yet she has a mass appeal that Cameron could not have dreamed of. Her success also has a strong class element to it; she is solidly lower-middle class, the daughter of an Anglican vicar, whereas Cameron, an old Etonian, put off voters by being quite obviously aristocratic. He could never have won in Wolverhampton.
May’s lead is not as impregnable as it seems, however. Her strategy starts to become less sophisticated the more you look at it. Her manifesto may have struck the people who wrote it as a masterful piece of electoral positioning, but it bombed. Her commitment to reduce the costs to the state of social care for the elderly by effectively taxing property proved politically toxic. It quickly became known as the “Dementia Tax,” and she felt compelled to perform a humiliating volte-face just four days after the policy was announced.
The complexity of Brexit—and the delicacy of negotiating our extrication from the E.U.—is taking up much of May’s time, and it’s often said that her government is not paying proper attention to its duties. She has a habit of introducing apparently sound Conservative measures that quickly unravel. For instance, she capped familial benefits on anyone who has more than two children, only allowing concessions in cases of rape. Not only is this so-called rape benefit sinister sounding in an Orwellian sense; it is also widely thought to be unworkable by almost everyone who has worked in welfare. Unless it is reversed, everybody expects the number of reported cases of sexual violence in Britain to soar.
Even May’s determination to press ahead with Brexit seems unmatched by any real surety of purpose. “Brexit means Brexit,” she said, and now that she has triggered Article 50—formally initiating the two-year process of withdrawal from the European Union—it seems she meant that. Perhaps wisely, she has kept her Brexit cards close to her chest; when it comes to negotiating the terms of Britain’s departure, she doesn’t need to give anything away. But there is a growing suspicion that she doesn’t know what she is doing. After all, when she became Prime Minister, she stressed, repeatedly, that she would not be calling a general election because Britain needed a “period of stability” following the political earthquake that was the decision to leave the European Union. Then, on April 18, she announced a general election, because “the country is coming together” behind her Brexit agenda, “but Westminster is not.” Yet her Woman of the People Against the Elites act is not altogether convincing. Nobody who follows politics will forget that, in the run-up to the E.U. referendum last year, she told a Goldman Sachs audience that she supported Britain’s E.U. membership not only because of the security advantages it brings, but because “people will invest here in the UK because it is the UK in Europe.” To explain her change of mind, she now says that, in the referendum, voters
gave a very clear message to us politicians[.] I think what they wanted to see was the United Kingdom making its own decisions and not feeling that decisions were being taken in Brussels. [I]t’s about our national self-determination as the United Kingdom. It’s about us having control.
That makes sense. But it’s still not entirely clear whether she thinks Brexit will serve the national interest.
Labour, meanwhile, are not as hopeless as everybody thought. Jeremy Corbyn may be wildly to the left of the British center, but he does not seem to induce the same contempt in ordinary people that he does among the Westminster chattering classes. Tory strategists are convinced that his sympathy for the IRA and Hamas, if repeated enough, will turn voters away from him in their millions, but that line of attack doesn’t necessarily hurt him. In fact, after a gaffe-filled first few weeks in the press, Labour seemed to be gathering momentum. A recent Opinium survey suggested that Labour could win a bigger share of the popular vote than they did under Ed Miliband in 2015, and the party’s manifesto, which the pundit class scoffed at mercilessly, turned out to be far more thought through than the government’s. Toward the end of May, the Tory advantage seemed to be shrinking with each day.
Then on the night of Monday, May 22, terrorism struck. A 22-year-old Muslim man blew up a pop concert in Manchester, killing 29 people, many of them young girls. Both parties suspended their election campaigns to honor the dead. May made all the right noises about never letting the extremists win, and no doubt she meant it. But it’s not too cynical to say that she has grasped the political opportunity afforded by the atrocity; that’s what statesmen and women do. On Tuesday night, just in time to make the first edition of the next day’s papers, she announced that, as part of Operation Temperer, she would be deploying soldiers on British streets. When I asked a Westminster insider why she had taken such a dramatic step, he looked at me as if I were stupid and said, “because there’s a general election coming up, why do you think?” Having served as home secretary for six years, May knows that, amid the fear and fury following a terrorist attack, people want “strong and stable leadership.” Those words happen to be the mantra of her campaign. Terrorism is meant to be Corbyn’s weak spot, and already the crazy Corbynistas on the left are spouting wild conspiracy theories about how the deep state carried out the attack to save her floundering campaign. Such crazy talk will push sane swing voters back to the Prime Minister’s position, and, as I write, May looks certain to carry on her march toward an electoral triumph. Still, as her leadership goes on, the public may realize that our 21st-century warrior queen is not as strong and stable as she makes out.