The Spectacular and Unforeseen Collapse of Theresa May and the Tories


An image that appeared on social media deriding Theresa May as "weak and wobbly" rather than the "strong and stable" leader she obsessively insisted she was. The "weak and wobbly" phrase was invented by Michael Crick of Channel 4 News.Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist and commentator.


Something extraordinary is happening in the UK, as Theresa May has turned a 20-point lead over the Labour Party into a three-point lead in the course of just one month, in what has been, without any advance warning, the most inept leadership performance by a Prime Minister in living memory.

Just two months ago, I was so thoroughly sickened by the relentless pro-Tory bias in the broadcast media — including most of the BBC’s output, and even Channel 4 News — that I stopped watching the news altogether. It has long been well-known to anyone paying attention that around 80% of Britain’s print media is implacably Tory, but it was a shock to see how, steadily, since the slavish coverage of Nigel Farage in 2014-15, the broadcast media had also become right-wing in what appeared to be a deeply entrenched manner, with a disgracefully high proportion of right-wing panellists and audience members on Question Time every week, with the transparent pro-Tory bias of Laura Kuennsberg on BBC News, and even Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News becoming notorious for most aggressively questioning anyone left-wing.

I didn’t stop reading the news online, particularly via the Guardian’s website, which I visit every day, and I continued to engage with the issues via social media, where, of  course, a vibrant left-leaning community exists, but I could no longer take the stress of watching and listening to a permanent biased media defend what ought to have been indefensible — Theresa May bullying everyone into silence regarding the self-inflicted madness of Brexit and also using it as a cover for the Tories continuing to lay waste to Britain’s essential services.

As I explained in my first commentary after the triggering of Article 50, in an article entitled, Theresa May: An Unstoppable Undemocratic Disaster in a Dismal Brexit Britain Without Adequate Opposition, “Since Theresa May triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty three weeks ago, starting the two-year process of the UK leaving the EU, based on a slim majority in a referendum whose outcome was not legally binding, I have withdrawn into a protective shell, unable to cope with her deluded dictatorial arrogance, the pointlessness of the MPs who have persistently refused to challenge her in any way, the spinelessness or corruption of most of the mainstream media, and the racism and xenophobia and pathetic Little Englander nationalism unleashed by Brexit.”

The state of my mental health immediately improved, and I noticed in conversations with friends and acquaintances that the withdrawal from the bias of the broadcast media was widespread. I even started having vaguely buoyant conversations about what we might do if we were permanently excluded from mainstream politics, rather like the situation in the late 80s, when most of us gave up and constructed our own realities — something that, of course, remains a good idea, as we should be working on changing the world from our neighbourhoods up, and not simply acquiescing to the notion that we elect other people to do most of the heavy lifting for us.

In this state of detachment, the local elections came and went and even Theresa May’s decision to call a General Election, despite having categorically promised not to do so, didn’t make me switch the TV back on. I wrote a few articles — Taking on Theresa May and Her Hard Brexit Dystopia: Open Britain Targets Pro-Brexit MPs and Local Elections: As UKIP Voters Join the Tories to create Super-UKIP, Labour and Other Parties MUST Unite in a Progressive Resistance, primarily looking at the importance of tactical voting, and urging the opposition parties to drop out when other parties had a good chance of beating the Tories — but nothing gave me any hope that the prevailing bias would be eroded and that there might be any meaningful change.

At the time of May’s election announcement, the Tories, according to pollsters, had an almost unprecedented 20-point lead, suggesting they would return to power with a landslide victory on June 8, perhaps increasing their 12-seat majority to 150, burying the Labour Party, and leaving May able to argue that she had been given a thumping mandate to continue to pursue her disastrous Brexit policy — one that still involved telling nobody anything, while insulting the people in the EU with whom she would eventually have to negotiate.

But then the wobbles started. With hindsight, May had done damage to her credibility by calling an election in the first place, because of her repeated promises not to do so, but then her refusal to discuss Brexit — despite framing the election as a Brexit election — meant that the focus for voters shifted to domestic policies, and on this she failed to realise that her dour Puritanism, dishing out more suffering to a population that was expected to just take it, and then ask for more, finally backfired, in particular via a disastrous, and entirely unforced policy proposal regarding care costs for the elderly.

Below, I’d like to quote from the ever-reliable Ian Dunt, author of Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now?, about how the disaster began, as he has just explained in Theresa May’s Self-Inflicted Election, an article for Foreign Policy:

May wanted to make this the Brexit election, because she thought that if voters asked themselves who they would rather see in the negotiating room — her or Corbyn — she would come out on top. This might be true, but it turns out that it is hard to keep voters focused on an issue when you are unwilling to provide any details about it.

The effect of Brexit on the British economy is impossible to overstate. It risks the return of a hard border in Ireland, billions of lost revenue from trade with Europe, countrywide regulatory chaos, travel obstacles, and countless other issues, including aircraft flight paths and animal rights. It is arguably the biggest policy decision taken by a British government in the postwar era. May still refuses to discuss any of it, instead relying on her absurdist mantra that “Brexit means Brexit” and she intends “to make a success of it.” Brexit secretary David Davis recently reduced critics to laughter when he insisted the government had “over 100 pages of detail” about the process — barely even a prologue. He admits to having done no studies on the consequences of falling out of the European Union without a deal, even though that is the default outcome of the coming negotiations.

May has asked voters to trust her judgment on Brexit issues without being prepared to divulge any details. Her election strategy has resembled a religious demand more than an intellectual proposition. Nearly a year on, Brexit remains an absence wrapped in a mystery.

This tactic has made it easier to avoid the difficult questions around Brexit and how, exactly, to make a success of it — but it appears to have had one major pitfall. May couldn’t hold the national conversation down on the topic of exiting the European Union because she refused to talk about it — and attention duly wandered onto domestic issues, where detail is available. And this is where things started to fall apart.

The care proposals — that the elderly would be required to pay for their care up to the last £100,000 of their assets — had, at some level, a sound basis in assessing how the ever-increasing care bill might be funded — but it was immediately attacked mercilessly by almost everybody.

As Ian Dunt explained:

[I]t was translated, in tabloid-speak, as a “dementia tax” — a state effort to stop you from passing your home on to your children if you were unlucky enough to get a debilitating and drawn-out illness. It was of particular concern to the over 65s, who happen to be the group that most reliably votes Tory.

The reaction was instant and entirely predictable. The press hated it. Tory voters hated it. Tory MPs hated it. What was most telling, however, was how surprised May seemed to be about all this hate. Even the most cursory stress-testing of the policy would have established that this response was likely.

One of May’s huge problems, however, is that she is demonstrably a dangerous control freak. When she was, essentially, the only senior Tory left standing after the Brexit debacle, and accidentally became Prime Minister, she purged the old guard — and it should be noted in passing that one unforeseen outcome of that is that George Osborne, appointed as the editor of the Evening Standard, has been using his new position to attack her relentlessly. As the Guardian recently noted, “They used to say revenge was best served cold. But that was before George Osborne discovered a better way – serving it regularly, in the pages of the newspaper he edits, to a captive audience of commuters.”

Within the government, May’s obsession with control has meant that she has demanded subservience from her ministers (think of how neutered her chancellor Phillip Hammond is), and her manifesto appears to have been written solely by May and her two closest advisors, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, who came with her to No. 10 from the Home Office, where she reigned as an authoritarian terror for six years.

Within days of the dementia tax disaster, May performed a U-turn, promising a cap of an unspecified amount on the policy. As Ian Dunt explained, “It was an extraordinary climb-down — possibly the first time a party had reversed a policy before it had been put to voters in an election.” Moreover, she handled the U-turn disastrously, holding a news conference at which, unexpectedly, she was savaged repeatedly by the same journalists who had, for nearly a year, been appallingly obsequious. It was at that car-crash press conference, in Wales, that Michael Crick of Channel 4 News first undermined Theresa May’s monotonous and mistaken insistence that she was “strong and stable” by describing her as “weak and wobbly.”

As Ian Dunt proceeded to explain, “The moment seemed to break May’s confidence. She’s never been the most reliable of public speakers; she has the twitching facial expressions of a shy person forced to attend a party. That alone is hardly a crime, but if you run for government on the slogan ‘strong and stable’ you really do need to be able to look it.”

As the polls began shifting, Jeremy Corbyn also suddenly became more popular, and the two changes are not unrelated. To my mind, Brexit, and the refusal to discuss it, remains the trigger for the collapse of May and the Tories, and I regard Brexit as the ultimate act of political suicide, which will destroy whoever implements it.

However, that is still in the future, and for now the void where the colossal significance of Brexit ought to be has been filled by the shifting of scrutiny to the Tories’ domestic policies, which has allowed the majority of the 16.1 million people who voted Remain — who have had been resolutely silenced since May became Prime Minister last July — to have a voice again.

Moreover, shorn of Brexit, it has become apparent that many of us — a clear majority, I would say — care enormously about who we are as a nation, about how the Brexit madness doesn’t represent us, and about how it is not just the racism and xenophobia and backwards-looking, isolationist Little Englander delusion that upsets us so much, it is also the sustained assault on the poor and the weak that has been underway for the last seven years, via an almost endless array of cruel Tory policies, from the treatment of the disabled to benefit sanctions, the huge rise in the use of food banks, the financial strangling of the NHS, and, most recently, the huge cuts to school budgets and the specifically unpopular cutting of free school meals for the poorest pupils.

In contrast, the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, previously derided as too left-wing by almost the whole of the media, has suddenly appeared to be what it is — a party that cares about those in society who are less fortunate, which produced a fully-costed manifesto establishing how pursuing tax avoiders and tax evaders, and making the very rich pay more, could cover the costs of cutting university tuition fees (another hugely popular move) and more generally funding public services. The Tories, in contrast, failed even to cost their cruel and derisive manifesto. See here, incidentally, for the Guardian‘s editorial today, endorsing the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

To add to May’s woes, another killer blow has been her refusal to take part in debates with other leaders. Generally interviewed alone, as though she actually aspires to appear as a friendless dictator, she has refused to debate Jeremy Corbyn, and on Monday sent Amber Rudd to a debate with all the party leaders, including Corbyn, at which everyone ridiculed her. In addition, her cowardice was then revealed as heartlessness when it became known that Rudd’s father had died just two days before, but that May had still insisted that she deputise for her.

Despite all of the above, the Tories may yet win the General Election. As I wrote just a few days ago, “I have no idea if our broken, hideously unfair ‘first past the post’ system can get rid of the party that, in 2015, secured 50.9% of the seats with the votes of just 36.8% of those who could be bothered to vote (and just 24.4% of the total electorate),” but I can see no way that Theresa May can emerge from this debacle with any shred of credibility left.

Moreover, as Ian Dunt has also explained:

[V]ictory alone is not enough. When she triggered Article 50 in March, May set the clock ticking; Britain now has two years to secure a deal that allows it to exit the European Union without catastrophe. Negotiations are supposed to begin in earnest just 11 days after the June 8 vote. May has used up two crucial months of preparation time with this election.

Countless hours have been spent by MPs pacing their constituencies and journalists going up and down the country covering interminable campaign events. The civil service has been effectively switched off for the duration of the campaign … This time was urgently needed to hire and prepare trade experts and negotiators for the work ahead. Britain needs to be coordinating simultaneous talks in Brussels and the World Trade Organization, where it must establish an independent presence outside the EU umbrella. It needs to set up staff and legally rubber-stamp countless domestic regulators to take on tasks previously handled by Europe. It is as enormous a task as any British government has undertaken in generations. The two years provided by the Article 50 process are nowhere near enough. May has now wasted two months of it on a cynical, self-serving exercise that has blown up in her face. Worse, the British public, after all this, still has no idea how she plans to pursue the most important issue facing the country.

A narrow victory for May, Dunt added, would leave her “humiliated on the national stage,” with “direct consequences for the Brexit negotiations.” He added, “May could reasonably be seen as damaged goods, who cannot necessarily get agreements she makes in Brussels past Parliament. And her choice of language during the campaign, including one hopelessly misjudged speech in which she claimed European leaders were trying to subvert the British election, has helped to poison opinion against her on the continent.”

With just five days left until polling day, I don’t see a miracle restoring the Tories’ lead. I’ll be shocked — and depressed — if they win a landslide victory, but as I noted above, our electoral system is unfair and has become increasingly biased in favour of the Tories, so it won’t be a total shock if it happens — although the lack of anything resembling a genuine mandate will make life difficult for them. In an ideal world, the Tories lose, and Labour and the SNP — and perhaps the Lib Dems as well — form a coalition government and implement a genuinely fair proportional representation system in which, more or less, every 50,000 votes secures an MP.

Of course, any non-Tory government would also have to grapple with the insolubly destructive problems of Brexit, but at least we would then have much more of an opportunity to work towards the only sensible conclusion — a second public vote on the terms of leaving the EU, based on a detailed public analysis of what Brexit will cost, what economic damage it can be expected to cause, how genuinely difficult it is to control immigration (even if that were something that is useful, which is something that those who oppose it have not actually demonstrated), and, as a result, how only someone genuinely deranged could sensibly want our departure from the EU to take place.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album ‘Love and War’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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17 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, an analysis of how support for Theresa May and the Tories has collapsed so spectacularly – primarily through May’s refusal to engage with the public and her extraordinary policy own goal over the dementia tax, when she presented herself as a predator of the old. In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn has been reminding people of how so many of us actually want to be decent people with well-funded public services and concern for others. It’s impossible to know if this will turn into true electoral disaster for the Tories, but whatever happens May’s credibility is shattered, as it deserves to be, because hers has been the worst performance by a Prime Minister in living memory. Curiously, I think what underpins her failure is her refusal to discuss Brexit, which she is unable to do because Brexit is truly a poisoned chalice, doomed to destroy anyone who tries to implement it. It’s time to get the Tories out, to arrange for a vote on the terms of Brexit that, through honest accounting, is intended to reverse the outcome of the EU referendum, and to have a non-Tory coalition government that introduces proportional representation to stop the Tories from ever having unfettered power again.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this. It’s been an exhilarating few weeks after so many months – almost a year, to be honest, since the EU referendum – of feeling completely silenced, as the country swung to the far right and became a genuinely dark place in terms of closed-mindedness and racism. And that’s not fundamentally changed, of course, although ordinary decent people are clearly reasserting their values in significant numbers. However, for the 3 million EU nationals living and working here, May has still refused to accept that they are anything other than “bargaining chips”, and it is profoundly upsetting to me as a British citizen that this is being done in my name.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    The latest polling figures via Survation:

    CON: 40% (-6)
    LAB: 39% (+5)
    LDEM: 8% (-)
    UKIP: 5% (+2)


  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Here’s an interesting article by John Harris in the Guardian, ‘Corbyn shows there’s a new way of doing politics. Straight talking is back’:

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    This is great. Banksy has offered a free print to everyone in six constituencies in and around Bristol if they send in a photo on Thursday proving that they didn’t vote Tory:

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Also worth a look – the Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill and photographer Sean Smith on the road with Jeremy Corbyn:

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Here’s the latest on Gina Miller, who took Theresa May to court to establishment Parliament’s right to be involved in Brexit negotiations. Her Best for Britain organisation is backing MPs who oppose “hard Brexit’ in 36 constituencies, including Maidenhead, Theresa May’s seat:

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Excerpt from the article about Gina Miller:

    “[Miller] said Maidenhead was the most regularly searched constituency in her group’s online tool designed to help people decide how to use their vote in a tactical way. ‘The polling we’re getting is that Maidenhead is not supporting a hard Brexit. Mrs May, representing them in parliament, is pursuing that. There are lots of places where people voted Remain, or did not back an extreme Brexit, where the representative thinks they can do that and ignore the people. People are now asking questions. It is not this hard Brexit blank cheque that May wants. She has kept saying she wants a mandate, and it is a mandate for extreme Brexit and it is the will of the people. Our polling shows there isn’t this mandate for extreme Brexit and there is no mandate for their manifesto.’”

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Deborah Emin wrote:

    Well done. Thanks for writing this.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re most welcome, Deborah. Thanks for your interest!

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    From the Evening Standard on Friday – ‘UK General Election polls: Jeremy Corbyn in shock surge as Labour leader now more popular than Theresa May in London’: “The current standing of the parties reflects how London voted in 1997 when Tony Blair won his landslide first victory, according to the YouGov poll of 1,000 Londoners produced for Queen Mary University of London. Labour is on 50 per cent, up from 41 per cent a month ago. The Tories are on 33 per cent, down from 36 in a month. In March the parties were just three points apart, at 37/34. Asked who would make the best Prime Minister, 37 per cent picked Mr Corbyn and 34 per cent Mrs May. A survey taken just after the manifesto launches last month had Mrs May ahead by 38 to 32.”

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Richard Osbourne wrote:

    Yes, thanks Andy, great work there and great links. Cause for optimism after years of sharing information about what the corrupt maniacs are up to!

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Very much hoping so, Richard – so long as Theresa May’s cynical efforts to use Saturday’s terrorist attacks to her political advantage don’t work in her favour. I’m pleased to note that both Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron are savaging her for her cuts to the police budget over her six years as home secretary, and her suppression of a report into Saudi Arabia’s role in funding jihadis, and she doesn’t seem to have secured any kind of a bounce. I think her truly depressing view of the world is so bleak that it’s not capable of drawing in anyone beyond her core supporters – what we might call the undead wing of the Tory Party. Ipso’s Mori’s latest poll has the Tories leading by five points (45-40), but as the Independent notes, “it reveals a separate result for ‘all giving a voter intention’, putting Labour on 43 and the Tories on 40. The overall result is reached by stripping out the ‘don’t knows’ and those historically unlikely to vote, who include black and ethnic minorities as well as the under 35s and the least well off older people.” A clear message there for people to get to the polling station and vote the Tories out!

  14. Anna says...

    Thanks Andy for summarising the trends. I’m trying to keep up and google several times a day ‘UK snap election polls’ -even though I know they cannot be trusted.
    On internal UK matters I merely sympathise with you guys and therefore ‘vote’ for Corbyn.
    But he really won me over a great way, when after the Manchester horror he stated – at great political risk – that our western destructive interventions in the countries which ‘supply’ the attackers, must be blamed. A blatant truth, that finally needed to be admitted. Nice piece about this :

    So I too keep my fingers crossed :-).

    As for May, having watched a couple of her appearences, I’m sorry to say that the only attractive thing about her seems to be her legs. Not really a compliment for a would be PM.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Anna.
    That’s a good Al-Jazeera article, and of course Jeremy has never wavered in his opposition to the possession of nuclear weapons, his reluctance to be involved in wars, and his recognition that conflicts are best – and often only – resolved by getting the various parties involved to sit down and talk to each other, as happened in Northern Ireland, of course.
    It has been disturbing watching bellicose old white Tory men have a go at Corbyn because he doesn’t want to use nuclear weapons in their absurd fantasy scenario in which some enemy or other thinks the minnow-like UK is actually some sort of worthwhile target, but that, of course, is all part of the reason that Corbyn is so unacceptable to the right-wing establishment.
    As for Theresa May’s legs, you may well be right, but I try not to think about them. I am still slightly traumatised by having witnessed her, last spring, getting out of a limo in the grounds of Parliament in red stilettos and an inexplicably short red mini-dress. It seemed to me then that she was delusional, and the passage of time has only confirmed it on every level.

  16. Tom Pettinger says...

    I couldn’t believe how a section of the audience at the last ‘debate’ (and a whole portion of society) is so fixated on nuclear weapons. It’s one of the most ridiculous wastes of money. We’re never going to engage in conventional warfare again – and nobody wants mutually assured destruction. I don’t get it…. they were all really, really angry!

    I think Corbyn’s been increasingly eloquent… he stumbled a fair bit with Paxman but other than that he’s been really good. I can see the communication of his message being a reason for the polls getting closer. Cameron was a phenomenal orator, like Obama – but neither May nor Corbyn are particularly authoritative in that way. Maybe one reason she decided against debating. She had a lot more to lose than what she had to gain!! Probably a strategic move at the time but it’s definitely not paid off…

    Sadly all the betting websites have a Tory majority still firmly on the cards, but the odds-on majority has moved down from 60-70 seats to about 30…

    Anyway, yet another great post!

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Tom. I can’t recall Britain being so divided before except back in the 80s under Thatcher, and the angry old white men obsessed with Britain’s military strength, and with having a leader not only prepared to launch nuclear weapons, whether in a first strike or in retaliation the moment before some unspecified enemy inexplicably wipes out our insignificant country with an unexplained nuclear strike, is at the heart of the divide as much as the whole Brexit/immigration nonsense. For the most part, it seems to me, the places with the most immigration – the cities – are those where people understand the very real need for tolerance (if they are not actively engaging with a multinational, multicultural reality), and these same younger, saner, and, particularly, less scared voters also find the concept of wanting a leader who is theoretically genocidal completely inexplicable.
    As to Corbyn and May, now that Corbyn has finally been allowed to get his ideas out to people – and, crucially, now that Brexit is temporarily off the table because of May and the Tories’ absolute refusal to discuss it – he has indeed become increasingly eloquent, but what amazes me is how no one in the Tory Party- including May herself – realised how incapable she is at communicating with people. Whatever happens, I think her credibility has been shattered, and if she leads another small-majority government I can only see problems. I fervently hope though that the polls are wrong, and that the Tories don’t get a majority, and that Labour and the SNP get to form the next government.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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