A Level Ideas Long Reads

Theresa May’s Tenure: 2016-2017

How did May's Government Structure shape her legislative agenda?

Theresa May was Britain’s second female leader, during perhaps one of the most chaotic times in British politics. But what type of government did she lead? And what can history learn from her impactful tenure?


Following Boris Johnson’s freshly renegotiated withdrawal agreement, everyone has suddenly started talking about Ms May’s failed attempt earlier this year. So, it got me thinking- how should history look back on her? Using the different models of government, I examine the most important moments of her premiership.

 First Cabinet, Election; Terrorist Attack, Initial Negotiations (July 2016-July 2017)

Immediately after taking office in 2016, she created a new cabinet position to kickstart negotiations between the British Government and the European Union- the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. This was very important, as it underlined her commitment in appearing as though she would begin with a clear statement of intent for delivering Brexit. This move best represents the Core Executive model, with her idea of filling her cabinet not on ideological grounds, but rather single-issue grounds- particularly with the big posts in Cabinet. The initial appointment of David Davis as Secretary of State for Exiting the EU and Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary both represented May’s eagerness to prove that she really wanted to “get Brexit done”. For many, Johnson’s appointment as Foreign Secretary was a shock; they didn’t get on well when David Cameron was Prime Minister, and Johnson was fresh from his humiliating withdrawal from the Conservative leadership race just a few days prior to his appointment.

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Daily Mail, 18/01/17

Initially, her cabinet resembled a united one- with her plan to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty was supported by her cabinet. Even after the Supreme Court ruling at the end of January (2017), which essentially forced the government to put Article 50 to a House of Commons vote- this was the first ‘bump’ in her government’s Brexit process. Relative to the Core Executive government model, her government retained a united front which won her many of plaudits; which were key in the lead-up to the government’s first negotiations with the EU in the summer of 2017. This can be seen through the Daily Mail front page (left), which was indicative of her strong early polling and momentum going into perhaps the most important summer in the Brexit process.

This strong polling arguably shaped the worst political gamble in modern UK political history- a decision to hold an early election. This is where her model of government probably underwent a drastic shift; her cabinet backed an election, but it was crucially the brainchild of her closest advisors: Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. It was their proposal, and in this sense, the initial idea was cultivated in private gatherings in May’s closed circle. The growing influence of these two advisors is indicative of an element of a Prime Ministerial Government; they had become a source of great drive in May’s governmental decisions- something which would later be heavily criticised. So influential where they in the election planning, that it was reported that Nick Timothy and others included the shambolic ‘dementia tax’, without the cabinet’s approval. This subordination wouldn’t play well after the election, with the first cracks appearing after the government’s surprise failure in not winning it outright.

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May’s campaign did little to bolster her credentials, which showed in the election results.

It was maybe the work of key figures such as Timothy and Hill who attempted to elevate May and her style of government into the Presidentialism mould. What is clear is that May did not run a Presidential government- although her successor may be- but her campaign was certainly designed to look as though she did. Her ‘strong and stable’ message was forged around her early image as a ‘bloody difficult woman’ and one that would ‘stand up to Brussels’. It was a presidential campaign designed to shun policy areas such as social security into oblivion; to hammer home her fiercely strong Brexit stance. Needless to say, it didn’t work. The election didn’t produce the intended result, which certainly damaged her leadership capabilities in the long run. And, it should be remembered that May had robustly rejected election claims- until she called one for the June 8, 2017.

During the election campaign, a hideous incident of terror in Manchester (May 22, 2017) halted the election and united the country in decorum. May’s speech on the steps of Downing Street a day later didn’t indicate anything about her government, but highlighted herself as a leader in face of a national tragedy. Harold Macmillan was once reported to have said that ‘tragedies’ shape the reputation of a leader, and this was certainly a well received response that the country would have wanted.

Perhaps May’s deference of Grenfell to other colleagues, underlines for some, why May’s government could inevitably be a Cabinet styled one- a cabinet which eventually consumed her premiership.

Yet, the summer of 2017 became insufferably worse. The Grenfell Tower tragedy took place on June 14, 2017, and May’s critics argue that this moment was her darkest hour. They say the country lacked leadership- many were angered by the government response- although an inquiry into the fire was commissioned by her the next day. In December 2018, James Brokenshire (the then Communities Secretary) announced a new policy regarding safety regulations, to which he promised, would mean “there was no hiding place” for contractors building badly protected buildings. Perhaps May’s deference of Grenfell to other colleagues, underlines for some, why May’s government could inevitably be a Cabinet styled one- a cabinet which eventually consumed her premiership. Since resigning office, May has since said that she should have done more following Grenfell.

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Philip Hammond had alleged that the Cabinet was divided over Brexit, and some members were briefing against him due to his ‘soft’ Brexit stance.

After the election, the first negotiations took place between Michel Barnier (EU Brexit Chief Negotiator) and David Davis; it soon became clear the cabinet was heavily divided around which ‘type’ of Brexit they wanted to pursue. A weakened government would not have helped with ensuring a unified cabinet- gaps were starting to appear in May’s leadership. The Chancellor Philip Hammond had alleged that members of the cabinet had been leaking stories about him to the press, over how he ‘didn’t want to leave the EU at all’ and over sexist remarks about female train drivers. The first cracks of government unity were seen in the summer of 2017, but crucially, no major ministers had resigned over the initial Brexit process. This could indicate elements of a ‘Cabinet government’ model in her first 9 months in office, however it was clear that there were key balances and relationships in her government that needing protecting. This was palpable with the conservation of  key ‘Brexiteers’ in her government; David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox (International Trade Secretary) were all still contented.

May: The EU and Parliamentary Defeats to follow at a later date. 

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