In defense of Theresa May
Britain heads to the polls today to vote in a general election that was called, perhaps naively, by Prime Minister Theresa May, who had hoped to use the vote to strengthen her own Conservative Party's majority heading into the Brexit negotiations. After all, when May came to power last year, it was not because people actually voted for her. When David Cameron walked away from his post after the Brexit calamity, May was one of several candidates for Conservative Party leadership left standing. But then, her competitors dropped out, and the baton was passed to May sort of by default. That's not a particularly inspiring rise to power, and it makes sense why May might want to reassert her own mandate heading into Brexit negotiations by asking voters to demonstrate their confidence in her and her party.
And for a while, it seemed like a great idea. Initial polls showed the Tories walloping the Labour Party and making strong gains in Parliament. But then two terrorist attacks happened, and the conversation shifted to national security. May also came under fire for what's being called a "dementia tax." And despite her robotic repetition of the phrase "strong and stable" on the campaign trail, May appeared weak and floundering when she declined to appear at a televised debate alongside Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, polls show that Labour has cut the Conservatives' lead down to single digits. And yes, Theresa May is in many ways to blame for this.
However, I still hope Theresa May wins, preferably with a comfortable majority, for two reasons: First, Jeremy Corbyn is appallingly unqualified to be Prime Minister of Britain. The second and more important point is that Theresa May is the only Western leader who understands the "populist moment" we now find ourselves in and how to navigate it through policies that are at once responsible and liberal and yet still assuage the concerns of angry working-class voters.
As The New York Times' Ross Douthat has pointed out, there is a case to be made that Jeremy Corbyn is much scarier than Marine Le Pen — who never got within single digits of the French presidency. Le Pen's party includes some people who once were close to pro-French Algeria terrorists; Corbyn himself has murky ties to the violent Irish Republican Army. Corbyn is a fan of Hugo Chavez. And his flirtation with and abetting of anti-Semitism is on a different level than anything the National Front's current leader ever did or said; that alone should serve to disqualify him. The press mostly portrays Corbyn as a well-meaning bumbler, rather than a radical as dangerous to the order as any other extremist; he gets the same free pass every left-wing radical gets that right-wing radicals don't.
But enough of that. The case for Theresa May is a positive one. For the past few years, Western electorates have been gripped by populist rage. This phenomenon is not (just) caused by various forms of bigotry, as too many allege — after all, bigotry has always existed. Instead, this wave is rooted in the repeated failure of elites in the past decades to improve the lot of the common man.
Theresa May has been groping her way towards a patriotic conservatism that responds to these concerns. She is tough on immigration, as she must be, and will prosecute a "hard Brexit" that leaves the U.K. fully in control of its borders. She has junked Margaret Thatcher's libertarianism, and David Cameron's elitist, pro-environment, centrist and communitarian conservatism. Instead she has spoken about a revival of industrial policy. At the same time she is still adamant that Britain must be "open for business" and economically competitive internationally.
In other words, she's not hanging bankers by lampposts. She's not stuffing minorities into a police van and shipping them off somewhere. She's not buying votes with government largesse, Chavez-style (or at least no more than your standard politician). But she is promoting a redefined version of conservatism that stays within the boundaries of liberal democracy and can appeal to both disenchanted working-class voters and to the center, and therefore can win nationally, which, despite media hype, she is still projected to do. All over Britain, May seems to be winning Leave voters, former Labour supporters who then voted for the pro-Brexit U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) and, now that UKIP has outlived its usefulness, are planning to vote Conservative, sometimes for the first time in their lives. Labour heartlands are turning blue.
Unlike Donald Trump, who is the dog who caught the car, or Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, for whom more of the same is the answer to everything, Theresa May has understood that right-of-center politics must evolve to meet new challenges, while still preserving the best of the liberal order.
She is not a Thatcherite, but she might be a new Margaret Thatcher in a different sense: a leader whose political success in her own country sparks off a wave of imitators around the world. May that be her legacy.