Analysis: May’s demise may just be the end of the beginning for the Conservative Party’s decline

Ben Wray

Prime Minister Theresa May has announced her resignation – Ben Wray takes a look at what brought about her demise, and why the Tory party’s troubles may not be over yet

WELL that’s that, then. Theresa May announced the end of her premiership on Friday, a three year tenure which may have achieved less than any ever before her, for good or ill.

May made a go of claiming some sort of legacy from her time in the top office of the land, but it shows how little she has to defend that she mentioned establishing an independent inquiry into the Grenfell tower fire two years ago among her successes. When Grenfell survivors still wait to be re-housed, and memories of the prime minister taking days before she bothered to make an appearance at the scene of the tragedy, that she would now seek to hold it up as some sort of trophy is pathetic and galling in equal measure.

But delusion has been a common theme of her leadership. In her resignation speech she made a big deal about the need for her successor to be willing to compromise, presumably with Boris Johnson or another Brexiteer in mind. But May lost a vote on her most important legislation by the largest margin in UK parliamentary history, but carried on afterwards like nothing had happened, refusing to consider that she may need a total re-think and to reach out.

READ MORE: Analysis: May’s too little too late speech offers up a pointless Brexit-for-all which will please none

When she did reach out it was as late as this Tuesday, when her authority had vanished as a desperate last act to salvage her Brexit. That should have happened after her disastrous decision to call a General Election, where she blew a massive lead in the polls in the space of five weeks.

It is easy to say that the Prime Minister had a very difficult job navigating Brexit, and of course there is an element of truth in that – delivering the Brexit vote with a Remain Cabinet was never going to be plain sailing. But the truth is that in March 2017 her job was not all that difficult – she had a majority and simply had to keep her backbenchers in line. But she decided to believe her own hype (it seems a life-time ago now but in the bounce when May first became prime minister the media were salivating over her political genius) and seek to secure the sort of majority which could mean Rees-Mogg and co could not cause her any trouble whatsoever.

The Prime Minister had not reckoned with the fact that beyond Brexit, discontent over a decade of declining living standards and austerity was bubbling up, and that a ‘vote for me to deliver Brexit’ message was no match for the movement Jeremy Corbyn inspired that Spring.

Looking back, it’s really two elections which did for May: first the 2017 General Election, where she won the most seats but lost the debate to Corbyn, and second the European Parliamentary Elections yesterday, where the failure to deliver Brexit by 29 March opened up a huge divide in her party’s support which Nigel Farage drove a horse and cart through.

READ MORE: Analysis: Tory members have the future of Britain in their hands – unless democracy intervenes

We don’t yet know the outcome of the second of those elections, but some are predicting the worst ever result by the Conservatives in their entire history. Tory MPs will happily put up with cheats and hypocrites, but losers they will not abide.

With May gone, eyes will quickly turn to who replaces her, and while that person will be elected as leader and prime minister by 100,000 Tory members with an average age of 72, they will not be able to hide from the electorate forever. May’s resignation is only the end of the beginning of the crisis for the Conservatives, with Farage, Corbyn and Sturgeon all in their own way smelling blood in the water of a once mighty party which may soon find it very difficult to command sufficient support in the country to get close to governing. The shift among Conservative MPs towards Boris is a sign of desperation – they think they need a ‘big beast’ to tame Corbyn and Farage, but if that beast turns out to be a buffoon who can’t deliver Brexit and is out-of-touch with the reality of most Britons (which clearly he is), then things can still get worse for the Tories. And if he does push No Deal through, one half of the country may never vote Conservative again. 

History may look back on May as merely emblematic of the Conservative party’s decline.

Picture courtesy of Number 10

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