Modern British history tells us that when a government minister becomes prime minister between elections, rather than by winning one, they confront a strategic political and ideological balancing act.
They must determine to what extent they should continue with their predecessor’s programme for government and to what extent they should advocate change. There will have been a democratic mandate for the former, although the new prime minister will need to add their own political narrative. If opting to establish a distinctive political agenda, the new leader will need convince the electorate to continue to vote for their party in the next election.
In leading the Conservative party to victory, both Harold Macmillan (in October 1959) and John Major in (April 1992) demonstrated that an effective and electorally successful balance could be struck.
But Theresa May could yet discover, as both James Callaghan and Gordon Brown did before her, that this balance is even harder to achieve if, on becoming prime minister, your government becomes mired in a political and economic crisis that turns out to be the defining event of your premiership.
Following his abrupt resignation as British permanent representative to the EU, Ivan Rogers warned that the government’s Brexit strategy, such as it is, is based on “ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking”.
During the weeks ahead, May will need to ensure her own political vision is not characterised by that very same muddled thinking. Otherwise, her government may start to unravel, irrespective of the progress of the Brexit negotiations.
Which way is right?
The first six months of May’s tenure suggest the signs are not good. Establishing a distinctive conservatism, policy agenda and narrative of her own will be a very difficult, if not insurmountable, challenge.
That’s especially true given that May took office less than 14 months after her party received an electoral mandate for a manifesto and programme for government which claimed to have “a plan for every stage of your life”.
Pragmatically, Theresa May could have chosen to opt for continuity. She could have continued the plans devised by David Cameron and George Osborne, especially since key strategic decisions for the entire five-year parliament had already been made.
In the event, May has chosen an indeterminate political balancing act. Her approach is part continuity, part change. The Economist has already branded her “Theresa Maybe, Britain’s indecisive premier”.
In her first Conservative party conference speech as prime minister, May praised Cameron as “a great leader of our party – a great servant to our country”. But she was also adamant that this was a point of departure. A new political era had begun under her leadership. The outcome of the European Union referendum, she said, was “a vote not to just change Britain’s relationship with the European Union, but to call for a change in the way our country works – and the people for whom it works, forever”.
However, in response to what she has portrayed as “the quiet revolution” of the Brexit vote, May has offered two potentially contradictory visions.
On the one hand, she speaks of “global Britain”. She seems to champion globalisation, liberalism, free trade and free markets. This is a quintessential reaffirmation of Thatcherite thinking.
On the other hand, May has a vision of Britain as a “shared society”. This, she says, is “the new philosophy that we need in Britain today. An approach with fairness and solidarity at its heart”.
That’s more redolent of the Conservatives’ One Nation tradition and Harold Macmillan’s “middle way”, which Margaret Thatcher argued had left the party “stranded on the middle ground” of post-war social democratic politics.
The common denominator of both visions has been May’s central mantra that the economy, society and democracy can and must be made to work for everyone – not just a privileged few. But this is to ignore the lesson of the past 40 years. Free markets do anything but share wealth and prosperity among everyone in society.
Even some of the principal proponents of globalisation, liberalism, free trade and free markets, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, have now acknowledged that neoliberalism has been oversold. They now see that the resulting inequality has been damaging to economic growth and that shared prosperity is the key to poverty reduction.
In the weeks ahead, and on her two most important battlefronts, Theresa May will need to demonstrate that her own political vision is not characterised by muddled thinking.
First, next Tuesday’s long-awaited speech outlining her government’s plans for Brexit must offer clarity of thought and strategy, where previously there has been only the bland obfuscation of “Brexit means Brexit”. Second, in relation to the mounting crisis in the National Health Service in England, where she has appeared previously to be in denial, May needs to act and be seen to act decisively.
Failure on either front could see the May government start to unravel long before its first anniversary.