James Forsyth

Twelve months of May

The Tories are now more popular than they have been for a generation

Twelve months of May
Text settings

Normally, the first anniversary of a prime minister taking office is the occasion for a lot of opinion polls and assessments. But by going to the country early, Theresa May has pre-empted that. By the time she has been in No. 10 a year, the voters will already have delivered their verdict via the ballot box.

Still, it is worth assessing what May has done so far. When she arrived in No. 10, her team had three main priorities. They wanted to complete the modernisation process by making the Tories more appealing to the so-called ‘just about managing’ classes, and to those outside the party’s heartlands. They were determined to shore up the Union — to see off Nicola Sturgeon’s renewed drive for Scottish independence. And they knew they had to make a success of Brexit.

Theresa May heads into this general election having made more progress on the first two issues than most people thought possible ten months ago. Last week’s local elections confirmed the poll findings: the Tories are more popular than they have been in a generation. What is really pleasing Conservative Campaign Headquarters is that, remarkably, there now seem to be no ‘no-go’ areas for the party, as their victory in the Tees Valley mayoral election demonstrated. For good measure, the Tories even won a council seat in Calton, one of the most deprived areas of Glasgow. No one now can deride the Conservatives as a party just for well-heeled southern England.

But the most symbolic victory in terms of the May team’s aims was in the West Midlands, where Andy Street, the former boss of John Lewis, won the mayoralty despite Labour holding 21 of 28 parliamentary seats in the region. Street, who made the decision to run after a meeting with May and her Birmingham-born chief of staff, Nick Timothy, won on a very Mayite platform of skills training, infrastructure investment and business and government working together.

What excites Cabinet ministers about this victory is that they feel the Street mayoralty combined with a Tory government gives the party a chance to show what it can do for the West Midlands, and to turn the region into a Tory stronghold. Bearing in mind Labour’s collapse in Scotland and decline in Wales, that would make it nigh on impossible for Labour to win a UK-wide majority in the foreseeable future.

May’s rapid success in broadening her party’s appeal raises the question of whether she is lucky or skilful. The answer is a bit of both. As Cameron’s former advisers never fail to point out, she is extremely fortunate to be facing Jeremy Corbyn, the weakest Labour leader in a generation. His failings and Ukip’s post-referendum collapse have given the Tories the chance to take a slew of Labour seats. The Tory campaign’s emphasis on Theresa May is a reminder that she, personally, is more popular than her party, while Corbyn is much more unpopular than his. After the drama of the referendum, she has presented herself as the responsible adult, who will make this new settlement work. Her low-key, provincial style is as in keeping with the times as Tony Blair’s classless optimism was in the late 1990s.

To some Tories, the constant focus on May denotes a lack of ambition. They argue that this election presents a unique opportunity to finish the process of detoxifying the Tory brand, while using Corbyn’s leadership to contaminate the Labour one. They contend that putting too much emphasis on Corbyn himself means that if he goes, post-election, it will be that much easier for Labour to recover under a new leader. But the Tory campaign team’s desire for as big a win as possible to secure a personal mandate for Theresa May means that this line of argument cuts no ice at CCHQ.

One of the most striking things about May’s first speech on becoming Prime Minister was her emphasis on the Union, which acknowledged that keeping the kingdom united would be one of her biggest challenges. Again, ten months on, she has made more progress than many thought possible. She has faced down Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second referendum without any apparent Scottish backlash. Indeed, in terms of council seats, the SNP went backwards in last week’s election (when you factor in boundary changes). It would be complacent to declare the Union safe. The SNP are all but certain to win a majority of Scots constituencies on 8 June. But they will almost certainly lose both seats and vote share — and nationalism is an ideology that requires a constant sense of forward momentum.

In Scotland, as elsewhere, May has been helped by her opponent’s mistakes. Sturgeon’s decision to come out for a second independence referendum before Article 50 had been triggered made her look like the one who was being unreasonable.

Even in the Brexit negotiations, a similar dynamic seems to be at play. The decision of the Commission side to leak the details of May’s Downing Street dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker has rebounded in May’s favour, and not just domestically. This crude tactic has illustrated the dangers of letting the more ideologically minded Commission handle the talks. The EU Council — whose president has implicitly rebuked Juncker’s team — and the member states will, one expects, now keep the Commission on a shorter leash. Indeed, British government sources claim that even the Commission’s own negotiator, Michel Barnier, was embarrassed by the Juncker team’s antics.

None of this is to say that the negotiations will be simple. It is still in the interests of the 27 to extract as much money from the UK as possible and to show that you can’t have the benefits of EU membership without the burdens. Paradoxically, by showing how quickly the Brexit talks could collapse, the events of the past fortnight have made it less likely that they will.

For all her political successes, May’s premiership will still turn on her ability to make a success of Brexit. The broadening of the Tories’ appeal won’t be sustainable if the economy crashes. But May will enter these Brexit negotiations with the political winds at her back.