It’s hardly going to be a year looked back on fondly by many in the political world: Donald Trump’s first year in power, threats from North Korea becoming ever-more sinister, the increasing rise of radical right-wing politicians across the Western world, and an absolute disaster of a general election in the UK. Needless to say, there has been head-scratching by everyone from those in the media, to all political parties, and the general public to find the answer to the question of just how Theresa May managed to survive the year. With three huge openings for her downfall, how did she manage to navigate each one of them? Here we take a look at each of these events, exploring what went wrong, and how May managed to fight her way through them.
The General Election. In May’s defence, she called it when the Conservatives were polling 24 points ahead of Labour, so it looked like it would be an easy win. What she didn’t account for was the hard work that would need to go into the campaign to get the huge majority and renewed mandate for Brexit she was hoping for.
Basing the Conservative campaign almost entirely around May herself ended up being a huge mistake – pitting her against Corbyn just made her seem villainous for attacking a man who, despite all the bad press and repeated attempts to delegitimise him, came across as genuine and passionate. May’s refusal to attend live television debates dehumanised her, and left the Labour party, with its superior social media presence, to drive home the fight for Corbyn.
Making the election not only about May, but about May’s ability to deliver Brexit, was also a significant oversight. The Labour party tapped into the reality very early on that people had other bigger and far more real concerns than Brexit. The Conservatives’ inability to provide adequate answers to these questions whilst constantly talking about Brexit was a sticking point for many people who saw their worries as being much closer to home.
So, how did May manage to survive the election? The hung parliament and debacle over their coalition with the DUP exasperated people from across the political spectrum, with accusations concerning which age group’s vote or lack therefore made the difference, who was to blame for the miserable performance of the Conservatives, and Labour’s inability to bring home a victory in light of May’s dismal performance.
However, May became defiant, and sought to appease many of those who opposed her within her party in her selection of senior cabinet ministers. Her determination and will to carry herself and her party through those days and weeks following the election brought her the admiration of some who would otherwise have opposed her. Nevertheless, perhaps the largest factor that kept her in power was the fear within the Conservative party of yet another early election which would bring what they all agreed was the worst possible outcome: Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10. May stayed, for now.
Then came the disaster that was May’s speech at the Conservative party conference in early October. Whilst it can’t be helped that her voice struggled to carry her through the speech, or that the lettering on the wall behind her came unstuck, or that a prankster found his way onto the stage and handed her a P45, it was an unfortunate metaphor for her position as leader of the party.
Amber Rudd pictured ‘ordering’ Boris to stand up and applaud the Prime Minister during one of her most difficult moments of the speech highlighted that there was almost definitely some truth to the rumours of friction within the cabinet at the time.
However, what the disasters of that speech did do for May, which likely played some part in her ability to cling on to power, was overshadow the fact that many of her policy announcement had been taken from the Labour manifestos of recent years, including Ed Miliband’s energy price cap and Corbyn’s council housebuilding policy. Had her speech gone smoothly, these stories would have made the headlines of a number of centre-left or left leaning outlets which would have brought renewed embarrassment to the government and cast doubt over their principles.
Then came two cabinet resignations in the space of just one week. First was Michael Fallon as Defence Secretary, who resigned after a journalists’ allegation of sexual harassment was said to be the ‘final straw’ for May after a series of allegations had been building against him. This was the trigger for a number of fresh allegations against MPs from across the political divide which threatened to destabilise all parties. Fallon was a big name in the cabinet and in the party more widely, and his shock resignation led some to question May’s judgement.
Very soon afterwards came the resignation of Priti Patel, the Development Secretary. Her position in the cabinet had previously been a cause for celebration of diversity as a non-white, pro-Brexit female member. However, whereas Fallon’s resignation was issued just hours after Downing Street received the phone call from the journalist, Patel’s resignation was somewhat more drawn out. News of her unofficial meetings in Israel dominated the headlines for days before she was asked by May to fly home from Nairobi where she handed May her resignation.
Finally, in late December, came the event many people had been waiting for: First Secretary of State Damian Green was sacked. This came after months of rumours of sexual harassment and headlines pertaining to pornography found on his parliamentary computer. However, as a close ally of May, it took far longer than it arguably should have done for him to be dismissed. It was observed by some that Green was someone May wished to keep close to ensure her continued stability of leader, but when his continued presence on the front bench began to threaten this, he had to go. As such, his departure was a personal blow for May, and it brought to the fore questions of whether she had enough supportive ministers to keep her in power should another disaster strike.
By this point May had become an old hand at navigating potential political downfalls, and as this final resignation took place so close to the end of the year, it was swiftly swept under the carpet just in time for her to start the new year with a brand new cabinet reshuffle.
Do you disagree? Do you think 2017 was the year May really shone – whether because of in spite of these events? Why not share your views – see our ‘about’ page and contact us via email or on Facebook to get your article published.