Elephants in the Room
Who Is Theresa May and What Does She Stand For?
Uncertain times call for inspired and inspiring leaders, and the question is whether the British prime minister is up to the task.
Even as the United Kingdom deals with the aftermath of its third terrorist attack in three months, on Thursday British voters will cast their votes in their nation’s parliamentary elections. This comes at a pivotal moment, with much at stake for the future of Europe and the U.S.-U.K. relationship. The immediate questions include in what ways the spate of terrorist attacks will influence the election, whether the British public will give Prime Minister Theresa May a meaningful mandate for her government, and to what extent voters will reaffirm last year’s Brexit vote as the U.K. government prepares to take up the formal Brexit negotiations in Brussels.
I have just returned from a week and a half in London (though I departed before Saturday night’s attack) and found it a city beset by a split psychology. On one level Londoners continue to display the preternatural calm, poise, and resolve of British renown, even as they look anxiously towards the elections, while being gripped by elevated security measures in the wake of the London Bridge attack and Manchester massacre, the latter being the nation’s bloodiest instance of terrorism since the “7/7” attacks of 2005.
On another level, the visitor to London detects pervasive disquiet, as the U.K. faces new uncertainties in virtually every direction. Across the Channel, the country’s historic ties with the European continent continue to fray in anticipation of the forthcoming institutional separation. Over the Atlantic, Britain sees new traumas destabilizing its most important alliance, exemplified by the broken confidence of American leaks from the Manchester investigation, President Donald Trump’s petulant and disgraceful Twitter invective against the London Mayor Sadiq Khan within hours of the most recent attacks, and Trump’s recent disparagement of NATO allies and withdrawal from the Paris climate accords. Within the U.K., in the north the murmurings of potential Scottish independence continue, and the threat of jihadist terrorism is ever-present and possibly growing throughout the country. The government’s recent disclosure that it is monitoring over 23,000 Muslims living in the U.K. as potential violent jihadists shows the grim scale of the challenge. The fact that the Manchester suicide bomber was of Libyan origin and had recently traveled back to his ancestral homeland also brings a new geographic dimension to Britain’s domestic counterterrorism challenge. Jihadists of South Asian background have perpetrated most other attacks in the U.K., likely including Saturday night’s attack.
Such uncertain times call for inspired and inspiring leaders, and the question is whether May is up to the task. She arrived at 10 Downing Street last summer by default rather than by design. In the wake of former Prime Minister David Cameron’s resignation after the Brexit vote, May’s Tory rivals formed a circular firing squad and eliminated each other while she astutely kept her head down and emerged as the least objectionable candidate for the position. Now, having not yet won a proper election in her role as prime minister, the lack of a popular mandate is a burden she is eager to shed on June 8.
Yet the campaign thus far has not answered the questions that have lingered since her surprise accession to the office last June: Who is Theresa May and what does she stand for? She is evidently a cautious and skilled politician, but what else besides? A pragmatic centrist in the mold of John Major and David Cameron? A committed conservative in the tradition of Margaret Thatcher? Or something else altogether, destined to put her own distinctive stamp on British politics? On the issues, May has adopted a posture of “hard Brexit” to appeal to her conservative base and pick off the bulk of erstwhile United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) voters, even as she otherwise tacks to the center on social and economic policy. Her recent and virtually unprecedented reversal (or “U-turn” as the British press gleefully described it) on the Conservative party platform’s policy on government funding of elder care showed her unfamiliarity with important policy details and relative lack of economic literacy. Thatcheresque it was not.
After both the Manchester bombing and London attacks, May sought to remind voters of her experience and resolve on national security issues, in sharp contrast to her Labour opponent Jeremy Corbyn, who faulted U.K. foreign policy for the Manchester attack. To his credit, Corbyn issued a more unequivocal condemnation of the London attacks, but the discordance only highlights his many previous years of equivocation on terrorism and sympathetic expressions for numerous terrorist organizations and state sponsors. Yet notwithstanding Corbyn’s vulnerabilities on terrorism, some voters might instead ascribe accountability to May, especially given that she previously served six years as minister for homeland security, with primary responsibility for preventing domestic terrorism. In short, the election implications of terrorism are hard to assess at this juncture.
Perhaps the most telling indictment of May’s leadership is that she has not solidified a more commanding lead in the polls despite having an opponent as singularly feckless and fringe as Corbyn. One periodically hears Corbyn described as a British version of Bernie Sanders, but given Corbyn’s socialist economic views, sympathies for terrorists and other violent radicals, and history of foreign policy views drawn from the fever swamps of the far Left, the more apt comparison is to some combination of Dennis Kucinich and Noam Chomsky. When one adds to Labour’s ineptitude the almost complete demise of UKIP in the wake of its Brexit triumph last June and the near extinction of the Liberal Democrats, the political stage would seem to be set for a Tory triumph of historic proportions. But that does not appear to be in the offing. While polling remains uncertain and spans a broad gamut of potential outcomes, the most likely outcome continues to be a Tory victory, albeit by a modest margin.
The other surprise is how little of a factor Brexit seems to be in the upcoming vote. Mostly this is because the British public appears to have made its peace with the fact of Brexit, insofar as one hears no calls for holding another referendum to revisit the question, and the consensus of political observers I spoke to is that in the hypothetical that Brexit were to be put to a vote again it would pass rather handily. This may be in part a function of timing: Financial markets have already factored in the initial Brexit shock with comparatively little harm to the British economy, while the precise terms and consequences of Brexit lie off in a to-be-determined future.
Assuming that the Conservatives do retain their majority, May is likely to reshuffle her cabinet. Foreign Minister Boris Johnson seems almost certain to be removed, and Chancellor Philip Hammond’s days are probably numbered as well. One indicator of the May government’s emerging direction will be whether talented and principled Tories such as Ian Duncan Smith and Michael Gove are brought back into the fold with senior cabinet posts. They are not personally close to May and her political advisors regard them warily, but both Smith and Gove are first-rate policy entrepreneurs, and one hopes the U.K. will be able to benefit from their talents once again.
But before that can happen, May needs to lead her party to victory on Thursday. If not, a bigger reordering will take place in the Tory ranks, with May herself most likely among the first to be reshuffled.
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