Is Theresa May Britain’s Mitt Romney?

by Benjamin Studebaker

With the abrupt departure of Andrea Leadsom from the Conservative Party leadership contest, Theresa May has cruised into number 10 as Britain’s new PM. To many, it appears that the Tory establishment has reasserted control over the Conservative Party. But I’m not convinced this is true–when Mitt Romney won the 2012 Republican primary, many people assumed that this meant the Republican establishment was in firm control, but within just four years Donald Trump had run Romney and the rest of the establishment Republicans off the Tarpeian Rock. Indeed, a close look at the data reveals that just as the 2012 result concealed deep weaknesses within the Republican establishment, the Tory establishment remains extremely vulnerable. May owes her victory to the incompetence and disorganization of her rivals, and she will need to be extraordinarily careful to preserve it.

Back in January, I discussed what happened in the 2012 Republican primary. For most of the race, the rebel candidates consistently commanded far more support than the establishment, but the establishment was able to win anyway:

This was because the rebels were overconfident–they saw how much support they collectively enjoyed in the party and they wasted time and money attacking each other, allowing Romney to quietly accumulate states and delegates:

Gingrich, Paul, Bachmann, Cain, Perry, and Santorum all damaged one another, preventing the rebels from effectively uniting behind one candidate, where they could have easily prevailed against Romney. Romney’s victory made the Republican establishment overconfident, and in 2016 too many establishment Republicans entered the race–e.g. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and John Kasich. With four establishment candidates, the smaller establishment vote was divided up into small pieces enabling a strong rebel candidate (Donald Trump) to win. Ted Cruz’s campaign saw all of this and had hoped to use the same strategy to prevail in 2016, but Trump proved more adept at operationalizing Cruz’s strategy, appealing to many of the same voters and making inroads into demographics where Cruz was weaker.

We are often told that the Conservative Party is different from the Republican Party, that it doesn’t contain a rebel contingent that is anything like as strong. This is true at the level of the parliamentary party–most Conservative MPs backed Cameron and most of them backed May. But increasingly in British politics there are major cleavages between parliamentary parties and party memberships. While most Conservative MPs were supporters of the EU, most Conservative voters backed Brexit:

Indeed, while Jeremy Corbyn has taken a lot of flak for not campaigning hard enough for remain, Labour supporters were roughly as reliable as the SNP for remain, and only 7 points behind the Liberal Democrats. What really happened is that the Tory establishment was unable to get its supporters to vote with it–indeed they voted almost 60-40 against the position of the party leader and the parliamentary party.

At 58 to 42, the rebels within the Conservative Party are not yet as strong as anti-establishment Republicans, but there is a clear rebel majority in the Conservative Party, and this meant that any Conservative leadership contest which offered the membership a rebel candidate could easily have produced a full overthrow of the existing party establishment. In a head to head race between Boris Johnson and Theresa May, Johnson really could have won–when he announced his support for Brexit, he was very clearly ahead:

In the days immediately following the referendum, the economic shock of Brexit drove Tory members back into the hands of the establishment, but a head to head Tory leadership contest would have occurred over several months, and Johnson remained easily within striking distance:

Instead the Brexiteers panicked. Gove stabbed Johnson in the back and diminished his support within the parliamentary party to such a degree that Johnson withdrew. Gove hoped to inherit Johnson’s supporters, but instead he found that many of them went to Leadsom and that the uncertainty Gove created decreased the membership’s confidence in the ability of the Brexiteers to restore order and govern with competence:

Perhaps over the course of the next two months the dust would have settled and a rebel would have been able to make it a competitive race, but Leadsom proved far too weak a candidate for that. Unable to withstand media pressure, she withdrew before the contest had really begun in earnest. This means that May becomes Conservative leader without having won a membership vote. She gets to take advantage of momentary disarray within the rebel camp, which in several months might have dissipated. Over time, the rebels in the party are likely to reassert themselves.

May was well-positioned to be the beneficiary of this disarray because she has learned from the establishment Republicans. Effective establishment Republicans know how to make themselves appealing to the rebels, and May has made herself an acceptable compromise candidate by accommodating the rebels in several key areas:

  1. While she campaigned for remain, she did so with very little enthusiasm and has promised to implement Brexit.
  2. As Home Secretary, she made a point to establish anti-immigration bona fides, claiming that immigration makes it “impossible to build a cohesive society”, requiring immigrants to meet income thresholds to bring spouses and children to the UK, and ejecting non-EU migrants who earn less than £35,000.
  3. She has distanced herself from Cameron and Osborne by focusing her rhetoric on inequality and executive pay, though her voting record contradicts this completely–she has generally voted with the government for austerity, for cuts to welfare benefits, and against tax increases on the rich.

This is straight out of the playbook used by establishment Republican presidential candidates and members of congress. They promise to give the rebels what they want, and either they lie (and disappoint the rebels, deepening their opposition) or they tell the truth (and effectively morph into rebels themselves). In both cases, establishment politicians who behave this way are winning by losing–they are either feeding party divisions through deceit and damaging their side in the long-term, or they are capitulating to stay in office.

This is a deliberate strategy–Theresa May knows she is doing this. We know she knows because she has now announced that Boris Johnson is to be Foreign Secretary. Johnson is clearly ill-suited to the job and May knows this–he routinely insults foreign leaders. His appointment is about party politics, not good statecraft. By appointing Johnson, May manages to do two things at once:

  1. She makes herself look even friendlier to the rebels, which will help her unify the party behind her in the short term.
  2. If Johnson should fail in the Brexit negotiations, he and the Brexiteers can take the fall. By choosing Johnson, May ensures that she cannot be accused of having appointed someone to carry out the negotiations who is not committed to Brexit or deliberately trying to bring about its failure. This makes it possible for the Brexit negotiations to fail without May being implicated. Remainers can blame Johnson while leavers cannot complain that Johnson wasn’t given his chance.

Establishment Republicans took their victory in 2012 as a sign that they could continue to dominate the party without much difficulty and ran too many candidates in 2016. May has recognized how divided the Conservative Party is and has made moves that enable her to keep the party united. The victim in all of this will be the country, which will increasingly be subject to grisly policies as May continues to attempt to appease the Tory rebels.

This is how Britain ended up with an EU referendum in the first place–David Cameron agreed to hold the referendum to get the support of the Tory rebels. That led to national disaster, and to keep the Conservative Party together Theresa May will be forced to follow the same playbook but on a whole new level–instead of merely promising to hold a referendum on Brexit, she must now execute it. The Brexiteers have not been able to lead the party themselves, but they have managed to force the party leadership to gradually accept their policies.

This is all the consequence of a Conservative Party that has attempted to sustain itself in the face of weak wage growth and high inequality by routinely asking the public to blame foreigners–both immigrants and the European Union. The right wing press in Britain has consistently pushed this narrative, and in so doing the Conservative Party has gradually dumbed down its own membership, making itself increasingly vulnerable to pressure from its most foolhardy elements. The same thing has happened in the United States to the Republican Party–in its efforts to secure support for candidates like Bush, McCain, and Romney, it has fed its supporters propaganda that has gradually turned them into supporters of folks like Trump and Cruz. In both countries party establishments are finding they cannot control the demons they have unleashed. In America the Republican establishment is being hounded out and replaced. In Britain the Tory establishment is forced to capitulate on policy. In both countries right wing parties increasingly find themselves dominated by their lowest common denominators. Unable to reverse this degradation, they are now reduced to outright capitulation. We all pay the price.