Nearly three months after Theresa May was brought crashing down to earth by the insurgence of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, she remains in the most coveted job in British politics. “I’m not a quitter” said the prime minister, with an assured sense of confidence that was so painfully lacking on the campaign trail. However, despite her sincerest protestations, she will almost certainly not lead the Conservatives into the next general election.
The Conservative party is the most successful political organisation in British history, having governed Britain for 56 of the last 88 years. However, it did not achieve such an impressive feat by being sentimental. From Churchill to Macmillan to Thatcher, the party has never been short of charismatic leaders able to succeed where it matters – at the ballot box. Ruthlessness is at the core of a party machine that understands better than any other how elections are won under Britain’s First-Past-the-Post voting system. Allowing Theresa May to lead the party into the last general election was a costly mistake that the party cannot afford to repeat.
From a seemingly unassailable lead in the polls to a hung parliament, Mrs May’s political gamble backfired in spectacular fashion, to put Jeremy Corbyn just a handful of seats away from forming a Labour-led coalition government. Although 2022 may fall too late for the 68-year old Corbyn, the election has decidedly strengthened the grip of the hard-left on the PLP for the foreseeable future. For Tory backbenchers and cabinet members alike, the prospect of a Corbyn inspired premiership is a frightening one and so nothing can be left to chance in 2022.
According to the most recent YouGov poll for the Sunday Times, 48% of those surveyed said that Theresa May should go before 2022, with a Survation poll finding that 42% believe it “unthinkable” that she will see out the length of the Parliament. May’s mandate to be prime minister is thin and it is more than likely that a Tory leadership contest will again consume the party in the near future. However, this may not come as soon as was predicted in the immediate aftermath of the election, because of the difficulty of ongoing Brexit negotiations and the threat of Corbyn forcing a vote of no confidence.
The experience of the only other female prime minister in British history should be revealing for Theresa May. After delivering 11 consecutive years of Tory hegemony, waging all-out war on unionised labour and winning three general elections, Margaret Thatcher could have expected a certain amount of gratitude from the party she so successfully led for fifteen years. However, in the calculated interests of remaining in power, sentimentality was abandoned to unceremoniously oust the Iron Lady from number 10.
American diplomat, Henry Kissinger, famously described the news as “worse than a death in the family” and there was widespread astonishment at the treatment of one of the Conservative party’s all-time greatest leaders. However, the decision was politically prudent. Thatcher’s premiership had waned in light of rising inflation and the deeply unpopular “Poll Tax” and the Labour party had opened up a substantial lead in the opinion polls. Her resignation permitted the extension of Tory hegemony beyond 1990, with John Major’s government seeing out another seven years of uninterrupted Conservative rule.
The similarities between Theresa May and Margaret Thatcher do not extend much beyond the fact that they both served as female Conservative prime ministers. But the ruthlessness of Tory MPs in 1990 should sound ominously for the future of May’s short-lived premiership, particularly if, as she said last week, she insists on clinging to power beyond the next few years. Theresa May will soon discover her days as prime minister are numbered, as cabinet colleagues and ambitious backbenchers begin to vie for number 10 Downing Street.
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