“I know he’s a good general, but is he lucky?” Napoleon
Early evidence suggested that Theresa May was a lucky political general. Political accidents fell in place in exactly the right order for her to emerge as Prime Minister in 2016. Theresa May glided from being a ‘safe pair of hands’ at the Home Office (2010-16) to the premiership, untroubled by the scrutiny her rivals endured. Neither the media or her rivals seemed to realise she was a rival for the top job. Her coronation as Prime Minister ended her lucky streak. Relentless media coverage and force majeure proved too much for Theresa May’s skills as a frontline politician.
David Cameron’s inept premiership ended with the Brexit referendum result. He was unworried at losing office as he intended getting rich on the international speech-making circuit. Cameron, a lucky politician and mediocrity, was shielded from scrutiny by the Coalition with the LibDems. His Cabinet colleague Theresa May was anonymous during the Brexit referendum campaign portraying herself as a ‘Remainer’. A farcical beauty contest by Tory ‘heavyweights’ finally led to everyone’s third choice: Theresa May.
The trajectory of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership illustrates political luck. Her political career was rescued by the Falklands War in 1982. This was financed by the North Sea Oil bonanza. £1.2 bn* was spent fighting a war 8,000 miles from Britain on islands populated by sheep. The Falklands war protected 500,000 sheep from the Argentinians. The 2,900 human inhabitants could have emigrated elsewhere rather than risking casualties in addition to large amounts of revenue**. This would have been a safe and cheap option but obviously unheroic and lacking in glory***. The political importance of a military victory cannot be overstated and Thatcher reaped immediate political benefits. Margaret Thatcher prospered, going on to win the 1983 and 1987 General Elections.
Thatcher’s luck was two-fold. Firstly, the war was far from mainland Britain, making Argentinian retaliation impossible. Secondly, the North Sea provided a revenue stream which meant the taxpayer was shielded from additional taxation. As elegant a war as was possible.
Theresa May’s turbulent beginning to her premiership mirrors Margaret Thatcher’s. The political environment is however pessimistic. North Sea oil is in terminal decline and May’s inheritance includes a firestorm of imported inflation, a malfunctioning public sector and an unaffordable benefit system turbocharged by the elderly. Benefits for the elderly are the principal area for significant savings still remaining. Brexit will cost billions in actual and opportunity costs as British industry realigns decades long trading patterns. Osborne’s austerity programme has left Theresa May facing the certainty of increasing taxation and diminishing the benefit bill for the elderly. This is toxic for a Conservative government.
Theresa May is, in July 2017, suffering from the political cost of terrorist attacks which highlighted the 20,000 police officer reduction brought about during her six years as Home Secretary. Worse, the tragedy at Grenfell Tower****, is being laid at the door of her government as a consequence of the 30-40% reduction in local authority and fire service funding. Theresa May is reaping the results of seven years of deliberate under-funding and has become a metaphor for government callousness.
Margaret Thatcher was a lucky general. The Falklands war was expensive, unnecessary and popular giving her a political platform which she ruthlessly exploited. North Sea oil financed a ‘feel-good’ Churchillian aura. Theresa May, in contrast, is reaping a failed economic policy which is causing socially important wounds. She’s in hock to Northern Irish bigots and Brexit True Believers leaving her in office but not in power.
*Corrected for inflation this is £3.9bn in 2016 terms
** There were 2735 dead and injured collectively, which is just less than the total population of the Falklands Islands.
***Colonel ‘H’ Jones’s Victoria Cross seemed to owe more to the need for a media warrior than bravery. Margaret Thatcher needed a hero and Jones was that -dead- hero. See http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1486592/Army-top-brass-had-doubts-over-Lt-Col-H-Joness-Falklands-VC.html