Sexism has helped Theresa May cling on
Nick Timothy’s testimony that the PM “does believe things” means the post-election story needs to be read a little differently.
In the early hours of Friday June 9th, Theresa May was declared the winner of her Maidenhead constituency. In her first words since the exit poll that predicted her election gamble would come crashing down with the loss of the Conservatives’ Commons majority came to be slowly realised, the Prime Minister offered to provide stability and certainty. Clearly fresh from crying, the diminished Prime Minister later offered her resignation when she was at CCHQ, only to be talked out of that drastic course of action by the advisors she would later fire to save her own position.
Firing those advisors is, as said, what saved her position. It calmed the cabinet’s own backlash against the Prime Minister, with many cabinet ministers distrustful of the bullying nature of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill’s operation in Downing Street. It also gave Conservative MPs the blood they wanted for the disastrous election campaign and result when they were promised otherwise. It made up for Theresa May’s ill-judged statement on Downing Street after forming a government the morning after the election, and it quelled the calls for May’s resignation before facing the 1922 committee of MPs on Monday June 12th.
May’s new Chief of Staff, former Croydon Central MP Gavin Barwell, gives MPs a much calmer tone when talking about Downing Street, even when May is still there. But why did the firing of two relatively obscure advisors provide such a gift to MPs that until that move, wanted May to resign?
Nick Timothy, one of those advisors in question, this week conducted an interview with the Telegraph, in which he gave his own opinion on why the election went so wrong for May and the Tories. In it, the Telegraph challenged him on the notion that Theresa May’s premiership is founded not on her own ideas or on anything she has a drive to do, but was based the ideas that Timothy provided her with:
[Timothy] claimed May was a victim of sexism from those who claimed he was the brains behind her premiership. He said: “She has done a very good job of stabilising things since the election which disproves that theory anyway, but I do think there’s more than a hint of sexism, to be honest — there’s a sort of implication that even having become Prime Minister she somehow doesn’t have a set of beliefs and a programme of her own, and she obviously does. Suggesting I’m the creator of those ideas is absurd and insulting [to the PM].”
Timothy’s assertion is that the collectively decisions taken by the campaign were okay with Theresa May, and that the way in which she governed until the election was too. May appreciated both the culture that her Downing Street operation had established, and the way that the election campaign was ran. Why then, if she had no opposition, did she not take the blame?
The term ‘Egbaston Conservatism’ of course came to be the label for the Tory manifesto, in reference to Timothy’s — not Theresa May’s — background. May was happy to launch the manifesto, in the full knowledge of what was in it, and she trusted her advisors. The issue was that ‘Egbaston Toryism’ was what underpinned May’s entire philosophy; people assumed that the Prime Minister didn’t actually believe in anything. It was backed up with the aftermath of the two Terrorist attacks in Manchester and London during the campaign, when Hill and Timothy both resigned from CCHQ to work for May’s response in Downing Street. As Buzzfeed News covers here, May was reliant on them to the point it appeared that she was simply the cardboard cut out they were using to implement policy.
May was able to get away without resigning herself and simply firing these advisors because of this reliance. Timothy is right in that the sexist impression was that despite becoming Prime Minister and reaching the top, the notion that a woman is still subservient to a man is prevalent; in this case, May was subservient to Timothy, her key policy architect, and May was reduced to believing very little. It’s undoubtable that Theresa May does believe stuff, and that the election campaign and manifesto reflected much more of her than we actually thought — though the closed, scripted nature of the Tory campaign probably did shut her personality off completely, earning her the title of the ‘Maybot’.
The effect of this sexism, however, was that it allowed May to avoid the embarrassment of being hte shortest serving Prime Minister since Bonor Law left ofice in 1923. Passing the blame of the disastrous campaign and manifesto to her policy advisers meant may could please the 1922 committee enough for the to keep her in place, while their removal meant that the cabinet would offer the Prime Minister another chance because of the less toxic Downing Street climate. If May was a man, would she had got away with this?
Probably not: Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, and Nigel Farage all resigned in the wake of their 2015 General Election losses. May played an experiment with the Conservative Party, trying to impede simultaneously on Labour and UKIP’s ground, and failed dramatically. No male leader would have been able to launch such a change in policy and come out, yes, diminished, but otherwise unscathed – not without being able to play on the sexist notion that the PM believes very little and is subservient to her male advisor. In that sense, it is sexist attitudes towards women in politics that have allowed May to get off quite lightly from her election disaster.