Theresa May will be the death of the Conservative Party


Theresa May will be the death of the Conservative Party

Theresa May’s lumbering premiership has abandoned Conservatism replacing it instead by four main behaviours that now define her leadership: copying the opposition; procrastination; stylistic but not substantive unity; and weak, contradictory, unreliable leadership, argues Bruce Newsome.

Theresa May has endured 20 months as premier of Britain. As she has admitted, Brexit will define her premiership and the prospects of the Conservative Party for years to come. The prospects for post-Brexit Britain and Conservatism are awful, although obscured by her calls for unity.

Her latest speech on Brexit epitomises the tiresome flaws of May’s government: grandiose requirements without practical specifications; creative writing instead of clear English; something for everyone, whatever the contradictions; more offers of compromise than red lines; promises to reduce uncertainty while extending the uncertainty; parroting the opposition rather than offering a Conservative alternative.

Her disastrous incapacity to improve is obvious in four main behaviours: copying the opposition; procrastination; stylistic but not substantive unity; and weak, contradictory, unreliable leadership.

Copying the opposition

As Home Secretary (2010-2016) she achieved little. Although she blames the other two main parties for blocking reforms, she offered few reforms, and her reforms were tweaks of prior policies or programs. For instance, she inherited the Labour Party’s Prevent programme (for countering violent extremism), she sustained it, and her manifesto promised to keep it going, even though it was more than a decade old, has not adapted to the newest terrorists, is easy to caricature as Islamophobic, and outsources official responsibilities to private actors. In 2017, Britain suffered a sharp spike in terrorism whose responsibility can be laid at no other door but Theresa May’s.

Within her first eight months of premiership, she called an unnecessarily early general election, when the surveys showed that the Conservative Party should increase its majority, against a generally derided opposition leader (Jeremy Corbyn), but two months later (June 2017) she lost the working majority that David Cameron had won in 2015. If Scottish Conservatives had not gained seats, Theresa May would have no majority at all.

Given her strong advantage in the polls at the time, she should have defined and differentiated Conservatism. All the parties essentially offered unadmitted socialism; but she didn’t differentiate. Her manifesto was belated, vague, and left-leaning, such as a ridiculous new policy to seize the homes of home-owners in order to pay for their terminal care, immediately nicknamed the “dementia tax”. She refused to change it, changed it, denied she’d changed it, and refused to specify the threshold for who would or would not be forced to pay for their care.

Her latest speech on Brexit, of all things, started with tedious repetition of Corbyn’s tag-line of “serving the many, not the few.” A single contiguous quote will give you the idea, in which she retrospectively steals Corbyn’s mantle way back to the start of her premiership:

“The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours. We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives. When we take the big calls, we’ll think not of the powerful, but you. When we pass new laws, we’ll listen not to the mighty but to you. When it comes to taxes, we’ll prioritise not the wealthy, but you. When it comes to opportunity, we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few. We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.”


The Brexit referendum in June 2016 destroyed David Cameron’s ethos and weakened her own, since she had sided with him against Brexit, but – due to disarray in the Brexiteers – she took over. She betrayed her unsuitability by promising “Brexit means Brexit” – a circular fallacy from which she has not matured.

She refused to specify her negotiating strategy: she claimed that she did not want to show her hand to the other side, but she did not know her hand. She did not file Britain’s intent to separate until March 2017. She did not sign an interim deal until December 2017, at the eleventh hour of the EU’s own deadline, whose contradictions remain unresolved, and easy for barmy Brexit-bashers to exploit. Even her concessions are exploitable. Thus, the EU rejected her concessions on EU migrant rights in Britain beyond the rights of Britons in the EU, then publicly warned her that she is “closing the door” on all trade options.

She delayed nominal separation from the EU until March 2019, and that’s just a fake separation. She prospected a transition period of around two years (into 2021), and has secretly sent officials to negotiate a transition to at least March 2022 – that’s almost six years since the Brexit referendum and since she took over as Prime Minister, and far too late for the Conservative Party to seek a new leader before a general election campaign. Given the general election of June 1917, the latest date for the next is 5 May 2022.

This is not the EU’s fault: the President of the European Council recently characterized her aspirations as “pure illusion” and warned that “we cannot stand by and wait”.


May’s latest speech on Brexit was aimed at a domestic audience more than the EU. It contained none of the specificity that the EU demands. but called for domestic unity.

She was successful in part of the Conservative press. The Daily Telegraph’s leader focused on the theme of “compromise” and described it as “her most pragmatic Brexit speech to date”, while the editorial welcomed “a reasonable path forward” that the EU could not reject. Peter Oborne for the Daily Mail described it as “brilliant…very British in its pragmatism, as she, with considerable deftness, succeeded by outfoxing her critics” and confirming her right to be premier, but contradictorily warned that “she needs urgently to fortify her position.” Iain Martin of described it as “terrific” and an answer to his criticisms of her.

Her speech failed to reconcile her Cabinet. Reportedly, Boris Johnson (Foreign Secretary) “harrumphed” during the Cabinet’s reading of the speech, such that an unnamed minister complained that he could not concentrate. The Daily Telegraph’s Europe editor characterized the speech as “exquisitely crafted” – a “temporary place of safety between the warring factions of her Cabinet.”

The leading back-bench Brexiteers naturally seconded her call for unity, including Jacob Rees-Mogg and John Redwood: they would look churlish to do anything else, but they explicitly deferred the nit-picking for later. Within three days, Rees-Mogg broke ranks on her impossible contradictions on fisheries, urging May to protect British fishing and warning that “the devil will be in the detail as so often.” A few days later, Redwood said Britain should unilaterally stop paying the EU upon the transition period.

Weak, contradictory, unreliable leadership

In the general election, Theresa May campaigned with the phrase “strong and stable leadership,” but she refused to join the televised debate between the other party leaders.

Today, the improving fiscal position is rightly attributed to the long-term policies of Cameron’s government (criticized as “austerity”), on which she vacillated, in the hope of spending on utterly impractical headline-catching policies, such as ending slavery abroad.

Now that austerity is over, she has nothing but Brexit to call her own, but everything she says on Brexit is contradictory and under-specified. Yet her latest speech spun her procrastination as “calm, patient discussion.”

Her speech ended by reminding the audience that she intended “to deliver for the whole of our United Kingdom” and “to provide that leadership” that she has provided so far – that’s not a cogent argument.

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    Bruce Oliver Newsome
    Bruce Oliver Newsome, Ph.D. is a lecturer in International Relations as the University of California Berkeley
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