British Prime Minister Theresa May has become a figure of derision on the left and right in British politics and among people of all stripes around the globe. While American cable news has been obsessed with Trump’s misdeeds (alleged and real) and have virtually ignored various corporate scandals among American companies (for whom they have long been cheerleaders), UK politics has fallen into a state of chaos potentially threatening the global order. This column is meant not to analyze Brexit or to discuss the lack of US TV news media interest in anything unrelated to Donald Trump or Russian “aggression” overseas (because the USA is of course a benevolent power looking to spread liberty abroad against the Russian menace, which is either hard-right fascist or hard-left socialist depending on the day and media outlet), but to asses May’s mistakes and how politicos here in Florida can learn from them.
There are serious lessons to learn from P.M. May’s many mistakes. But in advance, it’s important to note the circumstances she found herself in are not her fault – in a polarized world, middle ground is difficult to stake out. Leading a Conservative Party whose MP’s and electorate are almost universally to the right of her, but whose elites are in many cases to her left.
The issue of Europe has long torn the Conservative Party (henceforth referred to as the Tories) but May’s inability balance this led to her ultimate downfall. Today she sits 10 Downing as a lame duck whose tenure will be long scrutinized by political observers and historians.
Here are the lessons of the May years, which should be processed in this country:
- A centrist placating the fringe of the party can only lead to disaster
Theresa May is a self-proclaimed moderate who was actively opposed to Brexit. Once the referendum to leave the EU passed in 2016 and she replaced David Cameron as Prime Minister, her entire agenda was to placate the pro-Brexit/Eurosceptic wing of her party. She did this under the guise of respecting the (small) majority of British voters who supported Brexit. But in fact what she did was make one politicized move after another to appeal to the fringe. Every time she gave them what ostensibly they wanted, demands grew higher and higher. It didn’t matter how far toward the Eurosceptic and nationalist right May went, she was never trusted by that wing of her own party, a wing that has continued to undermine her to this day.
Ideological purity is a dangerous but so are ideological litmus tests. As extremism on the left and right have become more mainstream in western political culture, and many in the political media have drifted to either extreme as well, figures like May feel isolated. But unlike her predecessor David Cameron, May abandoned practical governing for political expediency which meant gravitating to the ideological pole where much of her party resided. It has led to disaster for Britain and her party.
2. When every move you make is political, you never win the trust of those you will eventually need to govern
Theresa May invoked Article 50 (formally beginning the process to take the UK out of the EU) when no one was forcing her to for political reasons and called a snap election in 2017 when one was not necessary. She called the election simply to improve her political standing. Instead both moves blew up in her face, Article 50 began a ticking clock which hit almost midnight this week, while the election actually served to strengthen the parties of the left opposing May and Brexit. May has however been aided by the ineffectual leadership of Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, caught between leftist city goers who strongly oppose Brexit and the core Labour and trade union voters outside London, many of whom support Brexit.
However, May’s dalliance with the right, her need for an extreme Northern Irish Unionist Party to back her following the 2017 election failure and general politicization of everything meant when she needed to build consensus in the commons she was unable to. Her response was to begin to try and act in an extra-constitutional way as a chief executive unresponsive to the commons.
While in the United States and France we elect such a figure, in the UK they do not. The commons eventually asserted its authority and right to govern by clipping May’s wings, and trying to steer the Brexit process themselves. They were no more successful, but May’s politicization of everything lost her any goodwill. Her attempts to overreach and grab power made her toxic even to those most closely aligned with her “compassionate conservative” ideology.
While Donald Trump is quite frankly unfit to govern, his lack of political skill is somewhat refreshing when compared to other western leaders. That having been said, I’d still take May over Trump.
3. Abandoning your base comes with perils when governing
May’s abandonment of the practical governing conservative wing of the Tories meant she couldn’t keep competent ministers or loyal soldiers around her. Constant cabinet reshuffles which brought in plenty of plotting and intrigue made her attempts to govern virtually impossible. In the end, temporary alliances with the likes of Boris Johnson failed.
Ultimately, some of May’s natural allies in the Conservative Party were giving loud speeches to protestors in the streets about the perils of nativism, populism and extremism. She had completely lost those senior figures that could have helped her through the crises of Brexit, and in the end like George W. Bush’s 2007 and 2008, was largely abandoned and isolated even within her own party.
4. Extremism creates governance problems
Jeremy Corbyn’s own leftist tendencies put him in a pickle. It’s not clear whether he supported Brexit personally or not – his party’s elites certainly did not, nor did most of the party’s MP’s. However, did rank-in-file Labour voters, those who made Corbyn its leader against the wishes of most party insiders actually support Brexit? Perhaps.
Combine this with Corbyn’s unwillingness to strongly confront anti-semitism and other classic leftist identity-oriented behavior and he’s lost control of his own troops and even lost the support of many parts of the centre-left media. His failings helped May remain in power throughout this process, despite her never having anything remotely resembling a true governing majority in the commons for her Brexit proposals.
But May’s actions made it easier eventually for Corbyn to colesce opposition to her. While seven Labour MP’s as well as multiple Tory MP’s left their respective parties to create a new centrist movement in recent months, Corbyn was eventually able to work his way into trying to make a deal with May but that created…
5. When you abandon your party completely you get nowhere
May’s constant setbacks in the commons where she embarrassingly lost vote after vote led her to try and strike a deal with Corbyn and Labour last week. This predictably went nowhere but served to remove the last traces of strong support she had on the right and genuinely confounded those in the middle, her natural ideological ground.
In the end May might have overseen the Tories conversion from a party of governing elites to angry populists. Sounds a little like the GOP under Trump, doesn’t it?
For those of us in Florida, the lessons of extremism have been on full display with the conduct of the governing Republican Party which went from a center-right governing party of ideas in the Bush years to hardened conservative party with a thuggish mentality under Rick Scott.
But for Democrats the lessons are apparent. Corbyn is reminiscent of Bernie Sanders in many ways, and can an extreme leftist caught between placating working class voters and urban elites really lead? But can moderates who seek to become popular in a polarized western world be successful because ultimately centrist parties that can win elections in western countries really don’t exist any longer. You either play to one of two poles or you perish. But those poles can eat you alive as well if like May you’re willing to abandon your base under the guise of following a popular mandate.