A year ago, David Cameron left Downing Street for the last time as Prime Minister after six years at the helm. At the age of 49 he was the youngest ex-Prime Minister in modern history, although it was not his choice to end his political career quite so early. Having led the Remain campaign to defeat in the bitterly divisive EU referendum, Cameron’s position as Prime Minister in the wake of the Brexit vote was untenable; if he hadn’t resigned, he would have soon been forced out by angry eurosceptics on his own backbenches. It wasn’t just David Cameron who left Downing Street on 13th July 2016, however, as the end of his mixed bag of a premiership also brought the curtain down on his particular brand of modern and metropolitan conservatism.
As Cameron departed, in came Theresa May, a figure who could not be less like her predecessor. Whereas Cameron was an Old Etonian son of privilege, Mrs May was proudly lower middle-class, a vicar’s daughter who spent most of her education in the state sector, and her rise symbolised the final defeat of the posh ‘Notting Hill Set’ who had surrounded Cameron. May’s politics were also very different to Cameron’s – more old-school, more socially conservative, less trusting of elites and international institutions – and as someone ten years Cameron’s senior, she represented a generational shift within the Conservative Party. As such, when she stood on the steps of Downing Street as Prime Minister for the first time a year ago today, she sounded like a very different kind of Tory, promising to be a champion of the often overlooked working classes and using the instruments of government to make Britain fairer.
The twelve months that have followed have been some of the most turbulent in peacetime history. This has been a year more eventful than some decades, as Britain has had to come to terms with its decision to leave the European Union whilst facing significant economic and political challenges, and in the midst of these tumultuous events Mrs May has gone from being the most popular Prime Minister in years to a weak and diminished figure hanging onto power by a thread. Once she was seen as the second coming of Margaret Thatcher, a figure with the potential to become a transformative leader and revitalise the Tories for a generation; now she is universally ridiculed and criticised, even by many within her own party.
I have frequently described David Cameron as someone with two very different personas: the bold and radical figure who led the Conservatives from the political wilderness and into government, and the cautious institutionalist who feared rocking the boat once in office. Just as there were two David Camerons, the past year has demonstrated that there are also two Theresa Mays. The first was a truly radical politician, even more so than Cameron had been in the early days of his leadership, the woman who stood on the steps of Downing Street and promised to listen to the poor rather than big business and global elites. However, this figure seems to have long gone, with the Prime Minister now a mere shadow of her former self.
From the beginning of her premiership through to the spring of 2017, this was a Prime Minister who seemed capable of achieving the impossible, transforming the Conservatives into the natural choice for working-class voters across the country and standing up to vested interests at home and abroad. The early signs were certainly positive. She threatened to walk away from the negotiating table if EU leaders refused to give Britain a satisfactory Brexit deal; she delivered some home truths to delegates at the World Economic Forum about why ordinary people view global elites with such disdain; she promised to pursue full withdrawal from all European institutions, despite such a path being derided as a ‘hard’ Brexit by opponents; and she took the unprecedented step of asserting her authority by sitting in the House of Lords during a crucial debate on Britain’s EU withdrawal, a not-so-subtle reminder of who is in charge and a scene that could have come from the political drama House of Cards. Meanwhile her poll ratings were consistently high, as voters confirmed that this was a Prime Minister who they liked and trusted.
For David Cameron, the crucial turning point in his transformation from radical moderniser to small-c conservative was the global economic crisis. Suddenly, the Tory leader who had promised a number of modern and innovative policies was forced to pursue a painful austerity programme which took up almost all of the government’s energy. Big reforms were still pushed through in areas such as education and welfare reform, but the Cameron administration lost its cutting edge and became increasingly technocratic and unimaginative, largely due to the significant influence of Chancellor George Osborne who had never had any time for radicalism. The turning point for Theresa May has not been a policy area in the way that the economy was for Cameron; indeed, she has been able to come up with a remarkably wide-ranging agenda despite the prominence of Brexit. Instead, the problem for Mrs May has been her ill-fated decision to call a snap general election.
The election didn’t need to be such a catastrophic turning point for this government. It was intended to deliver a big majority for the Tories, helping them to pass legislation through Parliament and providing May with a mandate following her unopposed anointing last summer. However, nobody predicted that the Conservatives would run such a dreadful campaign, allowing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to rise from the political dead and present himself as a radical alternative to the political status quo. In just a few weeks of campaigning, Theresa May ditched the radical message that had dominated her premiership up until that point and replaced it with a dull, centrist platform designed to minimise risk. Instead of continuing her crusade for the working classes, May became arrogant and used her strong position in the polls to justify the inclusion of a series of unpopular policies in the Tory manifesto. After all, there was no way that the Conservatives could lose, so now was the perfect opportunity to commit to a few necessary bitter pills – or so they thought.
Such hubris did not pay off. Instead of winning a bumper victory the Tories lost their Commons majority, and in order to remain in government Mrs May was forced into an embarrassing climbdown, ditching every single one of her most controversial policies in order to do a deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. With huge chunks of the Conservative platform traded away in order to avoid a series of parliamentary defeats, and even the government’s commitment to school choice now in jeopardy despite this being a policy area close to May’s heart, the Tories look completely rudderless. This has dire consequences across the Channel, with Britain starting Brexit negotiations from a position of weakness as European leaders revel in the fact that the government faces an uncertain future. All in all, this snap election was a gamble that backfired, a decision which in hindsight is remarkable in its recklessness.
As Theresa May marks the end of her first year as Prime Minister, it is unlikely that she will be celebrating. In a BBC interview today she admitted to shedding ‘a little tear’ as the election results came in and it became clear that she had not won a majority, and although more than a month has passed since that devastating night her premiership remains haunted by it. May has now been in office longer than seven past Prime Ministers including Alec Douglas-Home, the shortest-serving leader of post-war Britain who was ejected from office just days before his one-year anniversary. However, her term is destined to be a short one. She will not be the impactful Prime Minister that many had once expected her to be, reigning unopposed and using Brexit to reshape the country. She will not even fight another election; the Tories are famously unforgiving. Instead, Mrs May is destined to spend the rest of her tenure in office but not in power, her premiership in tatters thanks to an entirely self-made disaster. This is a truly sad state of affairs for a talented figure who could have been one of the great reformers of British history if only she had not allowed caution to triumph over idealism.