The phrase ‘Prime Minister Theresa May’ sounded right the moment I found myself forming it in my mind for the very first time. Yet what was odd was that I’d never thought to form that phrase until it became a reality around lunchtime today. Perhaps that is itself a sign of the introverted quality of our new Prime Minister who, from the outset, seemed the least likely to emerge from an otherwise extroverted field.
There have been a few transferals of power in my lifetime but none have felt as civil as this one. With Margaret Thatcher, there were tears, regrets and not a few accusations of disloyalty. John Major was royally dumped by a nation in love with six inches of ivory grin and a catchy tune. The grin would itself succumb to Labour Party politics (don’t they all?), though he did at least appear willing to leave Downing Street, even if he wasn’t heard singing ‘things didn’t always get better’ as he went. By the time it came for his successor to rattle the letterbox, Gordon Brown’s fingernails scratched a long trail down the Downing Street rug as he was dragged out by his ankles. There is no room for sentiment in British politics but this time does feel different. Two days for the old Prime Minister to pick up his slippers and give boxes of Roses to the people that ironed his socks seems like one of those political accidents that could become routine. There’s always been something undignified the way we load our ex-Prime Ministers onto the back of the removal wagon and this, surely, is the way of the future. All our Prime Ministers should shuffle off humming a tune.
Despite the relative calm of her arrival, Theresa May brings with her the promise of a newly reshaped government for which there is as yet no sense of what shape it will take. This capacity for vagueness has become synonymous with May’s style of politics. Other than her dress sense, she has not been an overpowering figure in government. Rather, she has become (and, I suspect, will continue to develop into) a grey studious figure whose presence we are almost willing to forget. It’s how we find ourselves greeting a new Prime Minister who remains something of an unknown despite having had one of the top jobs in government for longer than anybody since the days of moustaches and chin whiskers.
What does this mean for the country? We have no way of telling. May may be the May who championed the government’s right to track our internet usage. She might equally be the May who turned Boris Johnson’s ‘tally ho’ into a ‘tally no’ when he wanted to blast Trots and yobs from London’s streets with water cannons. Her shoes say ‘soft’ but her shoulder pads say ‘tough’. There’s no way of knowing which May will arrive on Wednesday.
At the same time, May was a Remainer, albeit one who refused to wear the t-shirt. She now sounds quite firm about Brexit. There may be a certain degree of calculation in this. The ‘will of the people’ is too absolute a term to describe the marginal Brexit vote but any new Prime Minister must be seen to acknowledge this new reality, even if we’re still not sure what it means for the future. What we do know is that a May Brexit will be different to the Brexit offered by Prime Minister Leadsom (the first time I’ve allowed myself to parse that frightening phrase). If May’s Brexit will come at an unspecified time, a Leadsom Brexit might well have started in September. She’d have invoked Article 50 before she’d even had chance to rename the Downing Street cat. It would have been a government ruled from the right as her candidacy seemed obviously driven by Iain Duncan Smith. Even her concession seemed to be as much of a relief to her as it obviously irked him.
The disappointment on Smith’s face was in stark contrast to the looks on the more moderate Tories who stood outside Parliament today to cheer the new Conservative Leader. There are a few on the right of the party who will now have to copy Jacob Ree Mogg’s technique of leaping like Roger Moore in ‘Live and Let Die’ from one snapping Tory snout to the next as each sank beneath the rising moderate tide. Mogg and the rest might cause a little trouble but it’s hard to see how. There is talk of a need for Tory Party unity but, in truth, there’s not much evidence that party fractures were as deep as previously described. Even with some MPs probably lending their votes to Michael Gove, May still won 199 votes in the second ballot. A small minority of 84 followed Leadsom. What this election has shown, in a quiet unassuming way, is that the realists have won the day.
One hopes that May heralds a style of adult politics that have gone missing for many months and, some would argue, quite a few years. Her victory sees the first introvert enter Downing Street as Prime Minister since… Well, the temptation is to say ‘Gordon Brown’ but his introversion was often indistinguishable from paranoia. One is then tempted to say ‘John Major’ but that would be to confuse dullness for introversion and there is a difference. May’s victory is one for the quieter and more moderate benches of the parliamentary Conservative party but Tories should be cautious about crowing too loudly. Both Labour and the Conservatives should justifiably look to their nomination processes and consider the worst case scenarios. 2016 has not been a good year for plebiscites and there was (and there remains on the Labour side) a chance of politics dominated by the extremes. But for an ill-judged remark muttered in a Costa and a lack of guts when it came to a hard political fight, Andrea Leadsom could well have been leading the party and the country. That might have been a victory for the Tory grassroots but, equally, it could have spelt long term political disaster. If the Labour Party do eventually get their act together and manage to elect somebody that doesn’t turn the stomachs of Middle England, Leadsom would have struggled going to the nation. May, arguably, stands a much better chance and there are few on the other side of Commons that have the stature to prevent her.
A quick election remains unlikely, though it’s been noticeable how few pundits seem to put much store in the Fixed-terms Parliaments Act. Two thirds of MPs in the Commons would need to vote for a general election and the popular opinion seems to be that it would be straightforward. However, it remains the least convincing outcome. Labour are in no position to fight a general election and the Act currently helps them. Back when the Coalition formed in 2010, the Act helped Nick Clegg whose party could not afford to fight a series of elections. From a Labour perspective, a snap election would reset the clock and might only guarantee five more years of Conservative government. If they wait until their leadership can present a better case to the nation, there could be a change of government, especially if the election turns into a referendum on Europe as championed by a newly politicised (and disenfranchised) youth vote.
In the remaining years of this government, Brexit poses challenges but even bigger opportunities to the new Prime Minister. The threat of Brexit continues to poison the economy but a little bit of poison does Theresa May no harm. A period of calm is now required in which the various political solutions can be proposed. Brexit itself is an ambiguous term and in all likelihood, if it comes at all, it will come in the form of Brexit-lite or the renegotiated arrangement with Europe that it’s thought Boris Johnson had wanted from the very beginning. Europe has long been the issue that divides the Tories as well as the country but the Referendum might have pulled its teeth. What we need now is a Prime Minister that will knuckle down, avoid the limelight, and get down to the serious business of running the country. We’ve had too many years of big ideas and radical changes. This might be May’s chance to prove that politics can often be done better if done quietly. Perhaps the time has come for an introvert to shine.