Whisper it gently, but there’s a mysterious woman in Boris Johnson’s life. Someone very special to him. Though she gets none of the credit, she’s the secret of his success, so it’s time she emerged from the shadows and received the recognition she deserves. Step forward… Theresa May.
Exactly two years ago, our second female Prime Minister was bowing out. After a torrid time in office it was finally over, and it ended with characteristic grace. In her resignation statement, she blamed no one for her fall, expressing only gratitude for the chance she’d had to serve the country she loved.
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Her critics were not so generous. Ranked against other Prime Ministers (for instance here, here and here) she fares poorly. In particular, she suffers by comparison to her successor. He delivered Brexit; she didn’t. He won a majority; she lost one. But that’s not the whole story. Two years on from the end of her premiership, we need to tell the truth: which is that Boris owes it all to Theresa.
It wouldn’t be the first time that a successful PM is found to be in debt to a predecessor. Winston Churchill, for instance, owed a great deal to the much-maligned Neville Chamberlain. The reason why Britain was able to hold out against Hitler was that, before the war, Chamberlain had rearmed the country. In particular, he built up the fighter capacity of the RAF, which proved so crucial in the Battle of Britain.
As for Chamberlain’s infamous failures, these too were foundational to Churchill’s success. It’s unlikely that the great man would have become Prime Minister had Chamberlain not exhausted the credibility of appeasement. Indeed she did more than Chamberlain to ensure ultimate triumph of her successor, and looking beyond the obvious low points of her premiership a very different picture emerges. Indeed, she provided the key ingredients for the victories that followed.
Her heroic story begins in the summer of 2016, when she saved Boris’s bacon.
On the morning of the referendum result, David Cameron resigned. The Tories needed a new leader and the country a new PM. This was meant to be Mr Brexit himself, but for reasons still to be adequately explained, things went sideways. On 30 June, Boris withdrew from the leadership race, deserted by his closest allies.
Then, in rapid succession, all the other leadership campaigns imploded too, the last being the unlikely Andrea Leadsom who had inspired a march so cringeworthy it has been repressed in the collective subconscious.
All of them, that is, except for one.
What would have happened if Theresa May hadn’t been willing to serve? Who would have become Prime Minister then? An unpopular Remainer like George Osborne? A minor Brexiteer like Leadsom? Either way, it’s hard to imagine Brexit surviving.
Brexit was in peril from the moment the referendum result came through. Indeed, the whole country was. The stock market was tumbling, the Government was in chaos, the Remainers were revolting. Anything could have happened in those dangerous days — a run on the pound, a sovereign debt crisis, civil unrest, a Tory schism, an emergency government.
Do you think that Boris Johnson — the guy who crashed the car and fled the scene — would have been forgiven if those things had happened?
But they didn’t. Instead, what we got was Mrs May — dutiful, dependable and reassuringly dull. It was her dullness, her lack of general warmth and charisma, that doomed her premiership, a job she clearly didn’t enjoy one bit and during which she always gave the impression she’d rather be back in Maidenhead helping constituents with potholes and boundary disputes. But at the time it was those vital qualities that were required to guide the country through this most unnerving transition.
He owes her everything for that alone, but it’s not all she’s done to deserve his gratitude.
There are those see Theresa May’s premiership as an ill-considered paradox: the Remainer PM who thought she could deliver Brexit. But it’s not as if she improperly denied the job to a Leaver. They disqualified themselves. Moreover, the Leave campaign, having won the referendum, left no instructions as to what to do next. So guess who had to work that one out?
It is said that the early decisions that May took on Brexit were fundamental errors. In fact, the opposite is true. She made the right calls at the right time and if she hadn’t Brexit would have been doomed.
For instance, imagine if she hadn’t triggered Article 50 when she did? Delay would have done nothing to help her win agreement for her proposed deal — but the increasingly obstructive House of Commons would have had the ultimate means of blocking Brexit.
And what if she hadn’t drawn her red lines — in particular those regarding British control over British borders? If Brexit had happened at all, it wouldn’t have been the Brexit that Britain had voted for. It would have been a Brexit decided in Whitehall, and would almost certainly have left the issue of Europe as an ongoing open wound.
Yes, it was Boris who finally got Brexit done — but it’s because of Theresa May that Brexit wasn’t done in.
Now, let’s address her other big mistake that wasn’t actually a mistake — the 2017 election. It’s a decision that’s been condemned as reckless, unnecessary, and something she was “talked into” by her closest advisor, Nick Timothy. But it wasn’t just Timothy; lots of people urged her to do it, including some who later became her harshest critics.
In any case, right up until the campaign itself, she had the right strategy and the right message.
May was the first Conservative leader to realise that a realignment of voter loyalties was underway. Thanks to Timothy, she understood what David Cameron didn’t, which is that the key to Tory victory is held by culturally conservative voters in the North, not by liberals like him in the South. It was that strategy that would ultimately prove successful and led, not just to a Tory election victory in 2019, but possibly years of Tory rule.
From her first day as Prime Minister, she appealed over the heads of the establishment to people who had more to worry about than politics: “I know you’re working around the clock,” she said, “I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle. The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.”
She promised to “make Britain a country that works for everyone” and Britain approved. We didn’t just have the polls to prove it — but some actual elections. Don’t forget that, in 2017, local elections took place a month before the general election, and the results were spectacular — a net gain of 563 councillors plus the election of Tory mayors on Teesside and the West Midlands.
And then the Conservative campaign threw it all away. They swapped a change message that they knew was working for the endlessly repeated “strong and stable” — in other words, a no change message. They also rammed the point home by coming out for fox hunting. Talk about “same old Tories” (which, indeed, everybody did).
Thus defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory. Yet all was not lost. The architects of the 2019 campaign clearly understood just how close Theresa May had come to taking the Red Wall. It was she, and not Boris, who made the first attempt. All that was required was to repeat her strategy, minus the self-sabotage. She had laid the groundwork and shown the way to a winning strategy – even if, admittedly, by showing how not to do it.
Should she have resigned when she lost her majority? Perhaps, but in 2017, there was no one ready to take over. And so she continued — condemned to clear up her own mess as well as other people’s. It was unrewarding, and each time she took her deal to the Commons, they voted it down. Lesser people would have packed it all in to take a well-paid job (or six), or sit in their luxury sheds, and the country would have suffered – yet those months of humiliation still served a purpose.
It provided enough time for three crucial developments: for the Remain establishment to overplay their hand; for Keir Starmer to swing Labour behind his disastrous anti-Brexit policy; and for Boris to re-establish himself as Tory-leader-in-waiting. And thus the pieces fell into place for the decisive events of 2019, and for Boris to reap the rewards.
Today, Theresa May continues to dutily serve her country from the backbenches. No life as a lobbyist for her. But I wonder if, at the next reshuffle, the Boris Johnson might not give her a job. After all, she pretty much gave him his.