Dear Theresa: What A Difference A Year Makes
A prime minister fights hard to resolve the sixes and sevens at No. 10
Prime Minister May,
Well now. It’s been one thing after another, eh? You started with such high hopes and great expectations a year ago. After David Cameron’s uncommonly swift exit from 10 Downing Street a year ago, you took charge of the government making history from day one, as the second woman in history to serve as prime minister and leader of the Conservative (or Tory) Party—no less than Margaret Thatcher was the first. You, therefore, stepped into huge shoes to be filled.
You struck the right notes in the beginning, starting with your first speech to the nation.
You said: “[W]e believe in a Union, not just between the nations of the United Kingdom, but between all of our citizens, whoever we are, and wherever we’re from.
“That means fighting against the burning injustice that if you’re born poor you will die, on average, nine years earlier than others.
“If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white, working class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately.
“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 prioritize not the wealthy, but you.
“As we leave the European Union, we will forge a new, bold, positive role for ourselves in the world, and we will make Britain a country that works, not for the privileged few, but for every one of us.
“That will be the mission of the government I lead, and together, we will build a better Britain.”
What a difference a year makes. What began with a galvanizing, egalitarian cri de coeur, a rally point for British identity, has since devolved into classic party politics—with a cruel twist. You’ve unwittingly aided the interparty divisions your speech of last year sought to downplay; you’ve accidentally undercut Conservative aspirations by trying to appeal to the other side; and you’ve signed on for a ride on the Trump Train, hitched your wagon to the much-maligned reality TV star ostensibly running the United States—a tie-up that serves you, or the country, no good at all.
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It’s all come-a-cropper a little at a time. At the G-7 summit in May, in the wake of contentious discussions with the European Union over repayment of money to the UK for previous obligations, you were shunned by other summiteers. You looked like the girl no one asked for a dance. By then, too, the pictures of your visit to Washington, and your hand-in-hand shots of you and the deeply unpopular President* Trump at the White House had bounced around the world.
Things went further south in the worst way. Dozens were killed in the terrorist attacks in London and Manchester. At least 80 people died in the Grenfell Tower fire in West London on June 14, and you were roundly criticized for refusing to meet with the survivors. A serious error of optics, at the very least.
You did what you could to set things right, ordering a full investigation and speaking in full-throated fashion at the House of Commons days later, saying it was a “failure of the state – local and national – to help people when they needed it most. As Prime Minister, I apologize for that failure.” But there was no escaping the fact that it happened on your watch. An op-ed piece in The Guardian called it your “Hurricane Katrina.”
“Mrs. May is President George W. Bush, off the pace, inarticulate, seemingly uncomprehending – a leader failing the great ordeal by disaster that is the ultimate test,” The Guardian said.
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Last week, at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, the so-called family photo seemed to tell the story in an image. While protocol and time in office play a part in who stands where it was nonetheless striking to see you standing in the second row of dignitaries for the second year in a row.
It physically underscored the changing of the geopolitical guard: By some evolving acclimation, Britain faces the singularly ironic circumstance of Germany — vanquished at the end of World War II — now accepted as the de facto economic powerhouse of Europe. Which may not matter much, since Britain will soon be leaving the European Union anyway, thanks to the Brexit vote last year.
And then there was your defense of Trump, the nominal American president, on his possible leak of intelligence to the Russians. It led wags in the media to start calling you “Trump’s poodle.”
You made the mistake of confusing the longstanding special relationship with the United States and any special relationship to be had with Donald Trump. The two are not synonymous. James Crisp of Euractiv.com may have put it best: “Trump has promised to put America first. Why would Britain even come a distant second?”
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This drip-drip-drip of recent events led to a challenge in the spring from Jeremy Corbyn, your bête noire in the Labour party. As he came after you time and again, you made a rash decision, calling for a snap election years before it might have been necessary, if ever. As Corbyn and other critics hounded your young government, you stumbled into an unforced error worse than anything at Wimbledon: You invited Labour to help set policy for your Conservative government.
In theory it sounds great, of course, a bid for coalition government, the kind of hands-across-the-aisle gesture that God knows would be mighty damn refreshing on this side of the Atlantic. But there’s no escaping the whiff of desperation in the air around No. 10.
“[T]he Tories can’t have it both ways,” Ellie Mae O’Hagan said in a blistering Guardian opinion piece. “They can’t call Labour a threat to the country, then beg to work with it for the good of the country.”
O’Hagan went on: “[T]he Tories are out of ideas. They’re wedded to a programme of spending cuts that the public has become increasingly angry with. As the traditional party of establishment they are fundamentally unable to respond to the anti-establishment sentiment that has become increasingly prevalent in politics since the financial crisis. They’ve over-promised on Brexit, and now they’re entering into negotiations with the EU, a more powerful institution that they’ve been monstering for the past year. No wonder they’re desperate.”
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So what’s to be done? It’s hard to say. You’ve set so much in motion yourself in the last year, and now events have to take their course. You’ll no doubt try to put a frame around things on Tuesday, in a speech that’s expected to panoramically address the challenges to your government, and make the case for giving Labour a seat at the table.
But it may already be too late. Critics like Corbyn—who’s thought to be seeking another election, perhaps as soon as September—are circling you like sharks around bleeding prey.
Maybe the best thing to do right now is double down on the idea of you as Britain’s change agent, the person who won the election a year ago, and the one who—naysayers notwithstanding—is best positioned at this crucial moment to steer your country into the future, a future certain to be uncertain no matter who’s in residence at No. 10.
Your predecessor, Winston Churchill, walked through the ruins of a battered wartime London more than three generations ago and brandished his V-for-victory sign. It’s time for you to get out of the hallowed halls and into the streets, where your constituents are. It’s time to make your case for you again. That may be your one shot, your one chance to move out of your darkest year into your own finest hour.