f you seek a symbol of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s inscrutability, look no further than a recent edition of the Sun, the conservative tabloid that is the United Kingdom’s most popular newspaper. The Sun handed a double op-ed page to the Tory leader to stump for votes ahead of the UK general election on June 8. The article was accompanied by a mock-up of the Sex Pistols’ 1977 album Never Mind the Bollocks—punned into “Never Mind the Ballots”—with a photoshopped image of May sporting a nose chain and black lipstick. Theresa May is anything but punk and nothing like rock; she’s more Johnny Mathis than Johnny Rotten. That the Sun, which has backed the winner in every general election since 1974, is now struggling to package a Tory prime minister for a Tory readership is symptomatic of the tumult of unruly Brexit Britannia.
May became prime minister last year following the resignation of David Cameron, her predecessor who had called a referendum on UK membership in the European political and economic bloc and pushed for Britain to remain. When Britain decided otherwise, Cameron bolted—and after a few days of political chaos, May was elevated by the Tories from the Home Office to 10 Downing Street. With the opposition Labour Party in a death spiral, she chose to call a snap election to strengthen her hand in forthcoming Brexit negotiations. Everyone thinks May is going to win in a landslide.
That does not mean she will be governing from an enviable perch. To her north, the specter of Scottish separatism looms. To the west, the power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland between republicans and unionists has broken down, and proponents of a united Ireland believe that their day may finally have come. The only arena in which May will stand unchallenged after the election is domestic politics. The Labour Party has abandoned the center ground under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, himself a human mélange of post-1960s political pathologies, who is grinding his party into dust.
A casual observer might analogize Britain’s position today to that of the crisis-wracked “Sick Man of Europe” that invited so much humiliating pity from friends and allies in the 1970s. At that time, a leader of vision and fortitude was required to steady the ship and alter its course, and Margaret Thatcher more than fit the bill. However, the challenge today is graver than the monetary incontinence and the labor militancy of that dreadful decade—and the stakes are arguably higher. Should May mishandle the next few years, there is every possibility not only of economic calamity but of the end of the United Kingdom itself after more than three centuries. Moreover, it is not clear that Britain’s second female prime minister is made of the same sturdy stuff as the first. We know almost nothing of May’s beliefs and instincts. This is both remarkable in an age of 24/7 scrutiny and social-media narcissism, and a quirk of the British political system. Prior to entering Number 10, May served six years as Home secretary, a security-focused Cabinet portfolio that shields its occupant from probing questions about his or her social or economic outlook.
In the Home Office, May was a complicated figure. She vetoed plans for a national identity-card scheme and reversed some of Labour’s more intrusive regulations. But she was no libertarian. She adopted traditional conservative poses on drugs and immigration; mobile billboards she championed warning illegal immigrants to “go home or face arrest” were deemed inflammatory and withdrawn. May cultivated a reputation as a crime-fighter. “I lock them up and he lets them out,” she quipped of her liberal foil in Cameron’s government, Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke. The sincerity of her law-and-order conservatism was nonetheless the subject of debate, since it seemed to contradict her warning during the Tony Blair years that the Tories were perceived as “the Nasty Party” and must move to the center. As Clarke noted in his memoirs: “I used to joke with her . . . that I was not as left-wing as I was believed to be, and she was not as right-wing as she pretended to be.”
The prime minister’s political principles are as uncertain as the future she is leading her country into. Iain Martin, a columnist with the Times of London, has observed May for many years but still regards her as something of an enigma. He says:
She seems to have almost no views at all, as far as one can see, on foreign affairs. Most previous Prime Ministers would have been able to offer a worldview, right or wrong. Thatcher had views on everything. Major was interested and engaged. Blair was radicalized by Kosovo and then 9/11 and became a muscular interventionist. Gordon Brown consumed American history and ideas voraciously. David Cameron is a traditional conservative wary of grand schemes and neoconservatism. All of them could have opined to one degree or another on European history, or the balance of power, on the tests for intervention, on the role of Russia, on Germany’s position, on American power, and on the rise of Asia. None of it seems to be May’s thing. Relative to previous Prime Ministers, she is a blank sheet of paper. Beyond an elementary and commendable patriotism and instinct for where the bulk of middle ground opinion sits, I am at a loss to what her outlook is.
Still, the beginnings of a May program for Britain can be glimpsed. Leading the UK out of the European Union while keeping the constituent parts of the country united is an undertaking unparalleled in peacetime. As one of the 48 percent who wanted Britain to remain in the EU—May was an understated supporter of a Remain vote—she should actually be well situated to convince her fellow pro-Europeans of the virtues of Brexit. That she has thus far failed to do so underscores the divisiveness of the issue. For 11 months, polling has shown the country split more or less along the lines of the Brexit vote. Her remedy comes in two parts. First, she is seeking a mandate in the general election to negotiate Brexit on terms that will command the greatest support at home while conceding necessary compromises to the Continent. In the short-to-medium term, even those who rejected Brexit will want to give her the benefit of the doubt.
Her unity strategy also involves working to close those social gaps that created the tensions so effectively exploited by the Leave campaign. As she declared in her first speech on the steps of Downing Street:
I know you’re working around the clock, 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. We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives. When we take the big calls, we’ll think not of the powerful, but you. When we pass new laws, we’ll listen not to the mighty but to you. When it comes to taxes, we’ll prioritize not the wealthy, but you. When it comes to opportunity, we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few. We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.
The Labour Party’s offering of reheated Leninism has left millions of moderate social democrats and liberals seeking a new political home. Theresa May’s communitarian conservatism, at once apdvancing free enterprise and seeking to rein in its excesses, is causing lifelong opponents of the Tories, especially among the working and lower-middle classes, to rethink their allegiances. Two immediate threats to the unity May seeks come from nationalist movements in Northern Ireland and Scotland, both of which voted against leaving the EU but which will now be removed with the rest of the UK. May, however, is showing surprising strength in Scotland, which has been an electoral wasteland for the Tories since the 1980s.
Though she may be unknowable, Theresa May is not unimpressive; she may lack philosophy but she has presence. Her old sparring partner Kenneth Clarke once described her as ‘a bloody difficult woman.’ Asked to respond, May was unrepentant.
The third and final stage is national renewal. Once Britain has regained its sovereignty from Brussels, what exactly does it plan to do with it? Prime Minister May believes the electorate “voted to leave the European Union and embrace the world,” and this means “taking the opportunity of this great moment of national change to step back and ask ourselves what kind of country we want to be.” In a January speech, she outlined her answer to the question:
I want this United Kingdom to emerge from this period of change stronger, fairer, more united and more outward-looking than ever before. I want us to be a secure, prosperous, tolerant country—a magnet for international talent and a home to the pioneers and innovators who will shape the world ahead. I want us to be a truly global Britain—the best friend and neighbor to our European partners, but a country that reaches beyond the borders of Europe, too. A country that goes out into the world to build relationships with old friends and new allies alike. I want Britain to be what we have the potential, talent, and ambition to be: a great, global trading nation that is respected around the world and strong, confident, and united at home.
Could something else emerge from her project of national renewal, something that could provide a blueprint for other democracies battered by nationalist and populist insurgencies? There are glimmers of a moral dimension to her approach. May is a devout Christian—her father was a vicar—and she attributes her politics to this upbringing in much the same way as Margaret Thatcher cited her father’s lay preaching and thrift as a grocer. The similarities end there, though. Thatcher seemed constantly on a mission; her every step was a stride. It is no coincidence that Alfred Roberts was an austere Methodist. Theresa Brasier’s father had a position in the far more sedate Church of England, and her faith, while deep, is nuanced. (She was one of the first Tory politicians to back same-sex marriage.) Nonetheless, her Christianity is obviously a lodestar in her spiritual and ethical life, and she continues to speak about it despite the ridicule it can bring.
If May can be said to possess any philosophy, it is a modest Burkeanism. She is instinctive, rather than ideological; pro-American and pro-Israel out of impulse rather than theory. She believes in markets but will not allow them to operate untrammeled. International institutions are preferable to supranational ones, in her view, but even then sovereignty must be accorded its due regard. Her frequent references to intergenerational responsibility echo Burke’s contract between the living, dead, and unborn. In concluding her January speech, the prime minister urged the country: “Let us do [Brexit] not for ourselves, but for those who follow. For the country’s children and grandchildren, too. So that when future generations look back at this time, they will judge us not only by the decision that we made, but by what we made of that decision. They will see that we shaped them a brighter future. They will know that we built them a better Britain.”
The American retreat from the international stage, initiated by Barack Obama but turbo-charged by President Donald Trump, leaves a space for new leadership in the West. Does Theresa May fit the bill? Today, the answer would have to be no; we know too little of her, and she is insufficiently tested. Iain Martin wonders whether Brexit might be the making of her. He contends: “As she grows in confidence, a May doctrine or worldview might emerge. My guess? It’ll be anti-globalist and for international cooperation but with strengthened nation-states such as Britain making the point that they are the bulwark of security.”
Theresa May may be unknowable but she is not unimpressive; she may lack philosophy but she has presence. Her old sparring partner Kenneth Clarke once described her as “a bloody difficult woman.” Asked to respond, May was unrepentant: “If standing up for what is right is being bloody difficult, then so be it.” It could be that May is a chimera, part gut-instinct Tory, part pragmatist, or a chameleon, masking her real politics as focus groups demand. Another possibility: She simply has no worldview, no vision beyond in-tray and out-tray.
There is no shame in this; politics needs its technocrats, too, and in these times of demagogues, political modesty can be a virtue. But the West is in need of a leader as global politics transitions from U.S.-led multilateralism to a new realist era of great powers motivated largely by national interest. If Theresa May can lead Britain to a prosperous Brexit, opening up to new trading opportunities while girding the nation’s security, and if she can do this while healing some of the divisions that contributed to the Leave vote, she could become, by default, the leader of the emerging post-liberal free world.