The aftershock of Thursday’s two by-elections are still reverberating, it remains to be seen precisely what the collateral damage will be inside Labour and UKIP, but Prime Minister Theresa May woke on Friday to clear blue skies. The Conservative Party increased its share of the vote in Stoke Central and became the first government since Mrs Thatcher’s in 1982 to win a seat from the opposition in Copeland. Copeland, previously called Whitehaven, now has its first Conservative MP since William Nunn won the seat in 1931 under Baldwin’s National Government landslide. That election saw the Conservatives win 470 out of 615 seats and take 55% of the popular vote. Whilst Theresa May isn’t quite hitting those heights, current polling is showing the Conservatives leading Corbyn’s by anywhere from 10 to 18 points, and projections suggest Mrs May would win a majority of well over 100 if she called an election today.
That Mrs May is unlikely to cut and run to the polls is one reason why voters seem to like her so much, her personal ratings are higher even than the party’s. Brexit related circumstances may force her to call an election earlier, but at present she intends to serve out the full term the party won a mandate for only 18 months ago. Voters rarely appreciate being forced to vote before necessary, as recent by-elections have shown, and Mrs May’s commitment to serving out the government’s term is another welcome retreat from the Presidential-style political leadership of the United Kingdom over the last few decades. Perhaps it is no coincidence that she is also the most experienced new leader to enter No.10, apart from Gordon Brown, and the oldest new Prime Minister since Jim Callaghan. Having participated in Cabinet and previously Shadow Cabinets for well over a decade before becoming Prime Minister Mrs May understands the value of collective government.
A new biography by Rosa Prince is subtitled ‘The Enigmatic Prime Minister’, others in the media have compared her to a sphinx. Such articles reflect far more on their authors than they do on Mrs May, and show how fundamentally out of step the London media is with the readers it claims to represent. Stories are often written about how Mrs May in her time as Home Secretary refused to engage in gossip over lunch with political journalists as if that makes her an entirely incomprehensible figure. In fact, it makes her normal. To most so-called ordinary people Mrs May is entirely normal, and typically British, in her refusal to be a media show pony, in keeping her private life private. Gone are the days of the Prime Minister trying to dominate the airwaves day in and day out, instead the Prime Minister chooses her moments to intervene and consequently when she does speak, people pay attention. Mrs May understands that most people don’t want politics forced down their throat day in and day out.
Anecdotally there also seems to be relief that the cult of youth around political leadership has gone. By historical standards Mrs May is actually a relatively youthful leader, given the norm used to be Prime Ministers in their mid to late sixties, and we have had Prime Ministers in their eighties before and the current US President is already 70 on entering office. Both Blair and Cameron, and even arguably Major, made mistakes in office that can be attributed to their lack of experience of government and relative youth. Being Prime Minister should be the summit of a life’s work, not a stop on the way to the international speaking circuit.
The personal always tends to be exaggerated in politics, but those are some of the personal reasons voters, and even Kate Bush last year, appear to have embraced Mrs May. Pragmatism, experience, decency, modesty have all been undervalued leadership qualities in recent decades, but now they are perfectly suited to the times we live in. Mrs May undoubtedly has inherited office in the most challenging circumstances of any modern Prime Minister, but voters also recognise that, and appear willing to make allowances for that fact.
There are, of course, other reasons apart from her style of leadership why Mrs May now dominates the political landscape. An official opposition has not been weaker for decades, and the threat of a UKIP takeover from the Conservatives right is disappearing into history. Under Jeremy Corbyn, but also before his leadership, Labour has become completely divorced from the daily life of ordinary Labour voters. The white van row that engulfed Emily Thornberry three years ago may have been only one tweet, but it was emblematic of the distance between metropolitan Labour power circles and their supporters. Labour was once a proudly patriotic party, even under Michael Foot it initially vigorously supported the Falklands War, today Jeremy Corbyn in many voters eyes has more sympthathy with Britain’s enemies than with his own country.
It is not clear where Labour goes from here, there is no sign of a Scottish revival and it is haemorrhaging votes in its core northern English heartlands. Another realignment of British politics may be taking place, such seismic shifts, often predicted, rarely materialise, but nearly 100 years after the last great change in the British party political system another overhaul may be overdue. The collapse of Labour would have parallels with the fall of the Liberals after their last long period in government from 1906-15/22. Where the threat to Labour would come from is less clear. The Liberal Democrats have taken a completely unscrupulous position in opposing the result of a referendum they had called for longest, it is proving effective at winning over liberal centre-left Labour supporters in local by-elections, but it has yet to translate into big increases in national polling. Meanwhile, UKIP’s raison d’être appears to have vanished, the Prime Minister is transparently committed to ensuring Brexit takes place, and the party is subsumed by its own failings of ethics and organisation. UKIP’s rump of support has already been claimed to be only thing stopping the Conservatives hegemony of the north of England, so perhaps Labour may yet come to be thankful for UKIP’s existence.
All of this is not taking place in a policy vacuum, indeed as commentators in the US have also noticed, Mrs May is striving to create a government fit for these anti-globalisation times, when the many feel only the few have benefitted from rising prosperity. Both the New Statesman and The Spectator have tried to analyse May Doctrine, they could do worse than look at her own words. Her first speech as Prime Minister was a clear statement of her ambition of leading a government of all the Union that works in the interests of everyone on our islands. She is a strong advocate of the benefits of free trade, but also recognises that the nation state still matters, indeed is resurgent in these more globalised times. Mrs May has acknowledged that at times politicians have appeared to forget that the UK is more than just a successful global economy, it is a distinct and unique society with its own history and culture.
Every political doctrine also needs a dragon to slay, Mrs May’s is clear. A global elite that does not really belong to any one country has emerged in recent decades, there is little evidence they benefit anyone other than themselves and it is in that context that Mrs May’s often attacked words at last year’s party conference “If you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere” should be read. More openly perhaps than most recent Conservative Prime Ministers Mrs May supports the power of government to do good. However, this is clearly for the purpose of enabling individual achievement, as she said in her first speech outside the black door of No.10 “We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives”. For Classical Liberals her belief in government is unwelcome, but it is no different to Mrs Thatcher’s practice of, as opposed to theory of, governance. We are all a product of our upbringing and as such is it really surprising that a vicar’s daughter is a believer in the helping hand of the state? That background is well suited to the current climate. If Mrs May continues to be successful in government, despite the immense challenges she faces, it will be not only because of the failings of the opposition, but because she has tapped into the mood of the British people at this time. The centre ground of politics has shifted, and at the moment Mrs May appears to be the only occupant of that hallowed turf.