Theresa May has now been prime minister of Britain for six months, but to read the current flurry of British press commentary you would be forgiven for thinking that she is a newly arrived and unknown quantity.
The Economist magazine, a venerable weekly which has long tended to the right in politics, inspired by its founders’ commitment to classical liberal economic theory, fired the starting gun of recent comment with its cover depicting Theresa May in funereal black and white, alongside the headline “Theresa Maybe”. This appeared on Friday, and quickly drew a counter-blast from the maverick conservative commentator Peter Oborne in the Daily Mail. Cue a raft of Sunday newspaper commentary and a rare, lengthy television interview with Mrs. May on Sky News to help out a new flagship Sunday morning programme. The prime minister then held a news conference on Monday morning to highlight her latest headline policy, on mental health provision.
Why all the activity after six months in office?
First, there is a growing sense of frustration amongst the Westminster classes that they still know nothing of Mrs. May personally. The bare-bones of her life story are familiar enough. She is a clergyman’s daughter, educated at a state grammar school, who met her husband at Oxford and was sadly unable to have children, copes with a diabetes condition and pursued a conventional and gradually more high-profile political career. Despite this oft repeated knowledge, there is little more to go on about what makes her tick. She is a famously unclubbable politician with a small, tight circle of genuine confidants. Unlike two of her more garrulous predecessors, David Cameron and Tony Blair, she is not big on prime ministerial appearances on the media. Her Sky News interview on Sunday, followed by a major policy speech on Monday, are unprecedented in her short tenure.
Second, there is a view that her policy agenda is almost as sphinx like as her personality. She came to the premiership in the wake of the Brexit referendum that doomed her Conservative predecessor David Cameron, and after a vigorous bit of cabinet house-cleaning, there has been a notable dearth of any information about her government’s Brexit plans. Whatever else Mrs. May will seek to do with her time in office, no-one doubts that it will be dominated by how Britain extricates itself from the EU. A largely pro-EU political class isn’t helping, with much attention given last week to the resignation of the government’s top diplomat in Europe, Sir Ivan Rogers, and his distinctly uncomplimentary valedictory message. The government has even fallen foul of UK court rulings concerning the precise role that parliament – notably the House of Commons – should have in scrutinising its Brexit negotiations.
Third, Mrs. May is struggling to make her domestic agenda heard and understood. She has tried to craft a message that sought to resurrect some form of One Nation Conservatism. Entering Downing Street with an impressive, and socially concerned, speech on her first day as prime minister, she has so far failed to give her ideas any long-lasting policy legs. Ideas to put workers on company boards have disappeared from view, while a much vaunted move to increase the number of academically selective state schools – popular with her party’s grassroots – has shrunk substantially in scope. Indeed, the purpose of her current spate of television appearances has been to put another domestic issue – the importance of mental health – front and centre as the new policy poster-child of her still inchoate brand of socially progressive conservatism.
Mrs. May has some three and a half years of her predecessor’s mandate to run, and may consider that time is on her side. Without much effort, she dominates a political landscape that has seen the Labour Party descend into squabbling irrelevance under a leader who few voters identify as prime ministerial, and a tiny Liberal Democratic party in parliament that once again looks more like a group of well-meaning protest politicians than a serious political force. The most significant opposition politician is Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who doesn’t sit at Westminster and has no remit in England or Wales. Mrs. May can afford to take a relatively Olympian view of her opponents.
And yet there is a sense that if she doesn’t start to bring a little more direction and vision then the next three years could simply be a succession of fire-fighting manoeuvres. There is every reason to suppose that, beyond the exigencies of Brexit, Mrs. May does have a distinctive political vision. She articulated some of it in her arrival speech, one of the clearest political speeches ever given from the steps of Downing Street. She is motivated by a sense of social activism, directed at the majority of British citizens who are far from the somewhat elitist groups that appear to have dominated Conservative politics in recent years. Her desire for more grammar schools, for worker representation on company boards, for better mental health provision – all points to a belief that the government needs to work better and in more directed fashion on behalf of ordinary citizens left behind. The “just coping” to use one of her memorable first day phrases.
Mrs. May is also not above attacking entrenched interests. Witness her long wrangles with the Police Federation, or her even earlier lambasting of her own party as being perceived as a “nasty party”. She was not one of the Cameron/Osborne elite, and she moved fast to remove many vestiges of that group from her own government. Unflashy, determined, possessed of a commitment to public service, it is also possible that her strong sense of British – more specifically English – nationhood will continue to give her a personal ascendancy amongst that British electorate which wanted to leave Europe and which looks for reassurance from its prime minister that she has not forgotten them.
It is just possible that Mrs. May has been hunkered down over the past six months trying to give form and substance to the complex issues she now confronts. Having set a time for the start of Brexit negotiations – March of this year – she may now also feel ready to come out fighting more clearly for her domestic agenda. Nevertheless, if she is to avoid the criticisms of indecisiveness and lack of direction, she may find that she needs to become a far more familiar figure on the British political landscape than she currently cuts. In modern politics, the sphinx isn’t an inspiring model.