Weak and Wobbly Leadership: The stumbling of Britain’s lead lady

30 May 2017

In case you hadn’t noticed, or you’re blissfully deaf to the progress of the general election, the Conservative Party is offering the country ‘strong and stable leadership’. That mantra has been repeatedly, endlessly re-iterated by May’s team’. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s main selling point in the run up to June 8th is her steady hand. This claim is a little less convincing when one considers how bad a time the Conservative Party has had of late.


A U-turn on a manifesto pledge on social care and a gradually narrowing lead over Labour do not bode well for Theresa May’s efforts to present herself the sensible alternative to supposed ‘coalition of chaos’ offered by Jeremy Corbyn. If we have learnt anything from the election so far, it is that the only legitimate comparison one can make between Theresa May and our party’s beloved Iron Lady is their gender and choice of bespectacled husbands.


Liberal conservatism’s favourite embittered editor George Osborne said in a recent Evening Standard editorial that May’s plans on social care were 'badly thought through', and described the details of her U-turn on the policy 'sketchy'. In the same paper, it was reported that her chiefs of staff Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill were 'at loggerheads' over the proposals, with Conservative candidates at local level keen to avoid the topic.


There is a bravery to Theresa May’s plans, as elderly voters have proved to be among the Tories’ most loyal supporters, but also an undeniable embarrassment. It is without a doubt that the mounting costs of social care, and the implications of a steadily ageing population, must be addressed, but to flounder on something so obviously key to the party’s manifesto is nothing short of a disaster. May is, rightfully, attempting to mark herself out from the shambolic tendencies of Jeremy Corbyn, and prove that she possesses the steel that is required to safely steer Britain through Brexit. Her manifesto flip-flop does not come with the air of a leader willing to change her mind, but one whose authority is a mere façade.


What makes the U-turn worse is May’s refusal to recognise it as such. Rather like the attempted defence of Philip Hammond’s short-lived proposal for national insurance increases for the self-employed, despite promises in a Conservative manifesto two years old that there would be no such increases, the PM has dismissed accusations of indecision as mere misinterpretation. A cap on social care payments was never ruled out, she seeks to 'clarify', despite representatives of her party previously suggesting otherwise.


A ‘strong and stable’ leader might have the guts to admit to a mistake. A politically competent one might have actually considered the policy a little better before including it in her manifesto written with the aim. As correctly assessed by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, 'clarify' is a word often used by politicians who have changed their minds. Theresa May was right to correct the commitment, but it should have required correcting in the first place. More mischievous commentators might consider playing John McDonnell’s infamous cries of “Embarrassing! Embarrassing!” in the wake of one of his own U-turns if ever in the Prime Minister’s presence.


This election should have been an easy one for the Conservative Party. Jeremy Corbyn is still marred by dismal personal approval ratings, Labour remain untrusted on key issues such as the economy and Europe, and the radio and television performances of key allies like Diane Abbott have been poor to the point of hilarity. Labour’s own manifesto raised as many questions as it sought to answer, with important bodies like the Institute of Fiscal Studies' (IFS) warning that its costings are not as solid as claimed. Less than a year ago, 172 of Corbyn’s MPs denounced his position as untenable, and attempted to remove him from office. More recently, the man himself hinted at the possibility of a second referendum on Scottish independence, something the Conservatives are keen to deny Nicola Sturgeon.


Whilst a Corbyn victory on June 8th remains a remote possibility, Theresa May is being handed a tougher fight than first anticipated. Against such feeble opposition, the blame for the government’s ‘wobbly week’ must lie at least partly at her door. Such is the weakness of her greatly trumpeted ‘plan for Britain’, her failure to ensure that same plan is properly costed prompted the IFS to criticise the Tories, who regard the economy as a strong point, as dishonest.


Having made the mistake of tailoring her party’s campaign almost entirely around herself, May cannot afford to falter. She has every opportunity and reason to prove herself a better leader than her rival. The Conservative Party deserves better than inane stumbling.


Two years ago, or two centuries as it often feels, David Cameron managed a victory most thought impossible. In simpler days many of us no doubt struggle to remember, there was little difference between Labour and the Conservatives in the polls, with concerns about the SNP’s possible role in government and Ed Miliband’s weirdness prominent throughout the campaign. Cameron’s tackling of the 2015 general election was not without the odd trip or gaffe, but he and his team did at least effectively capitalise on the many flaws of their opposition whilst professionally concealing some of their own. Jeremy Corbyn has by all accounts proven himself to be a disaster of unprecedented proportions. So what is Theresa May’s excuse?


I am confident I will wake on June 9th to news of a Conservative majority, but I do not anticipate a landslide. Theresa May began with high expectations, and has had every opportunity to fulfil them. Not since the days of the Thatcher and Foot has the Conservative Party been so lucky.


The Prime Minister called this election with the polls in mind. Any victory she delivers needs to be a substantial one. But for all her talk of ‘strong and stable leadership’, she is now the greatest threat to such an outcome. May can be sure of success, and with Brexit looming this general election may well prove to be of historical significance in years to come, but she should forget any notion of being crowned Britain’s next Iron Lady.




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