Is May ‘a dead woman walking?’
“I would like to say how very pleased I am with the result and how very pleased I am to have had the overwhelming support of my colleagues in the House [of Commons] and the people from the party in the country,” she said, standing outside her official residence at Number 10 Downing Street, but refusing to answer any questions from the crowd of journalists and photographers.
That was not Theresa May last week trying to put a brave face after the disastrous results of the snap general elections, by reminding that Conservatives were still the first party. It was Margaret Thatcher on Dec. 5, 1989, putting a brave face over the fact that she remained the leader of her party and a prime minister.
In fact, being the prime minister since 1979 and the first female one of her country, her statement had not to do with the result of the general elections. She had already won her third term in office in 1987. And at the age of 60, she was full of energy and ideological drive to stay on for years to come. Yet, her third term in office had been marred with highly unpopular domestic policies like the infamous “Poll Tax,” - a flat-rate tax on every adult living in the U.K. - further drastic cuts on the National Health Service (NHS) and social care and persistent unemployment; at the same time her confrontational style against Brussels had placed Britain even farther from the European policymakers who looked at Thatcher as the “odd one out.” Already she was facing serious problems in her party due to her arrogant and stubborn attitude; she had clashed badly with her Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe during the European Summit in Madrid insisting on being against British membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism. The Labour Party was picking up again, fast.
Faced with an increasing tension between the prime minister and her party, between Thatcher and the British electorate and acting on instincts of self-preservation, the “Elders” of the Conservative Party – known as the 1922 Committee – decided to use the classic procedure of the “stalking horse” to test the ground. A rather silent backbencher from her party challenged Thatcher’s leadership. A quick party leadership election followed where, out of a total of 374 Tory MPs, 314 endorsed Mrs. Thatcher, but 33 voted for Sir Anthony Meyer. There were also 27 MPs who deliberately spoilt their ballot papers or abstained. The decision to remove her was taken at that moment, but it took a long time to apply it. Almost one year.
Her last year in office was a further slide in her popularity due to her hardening stance toward Europe (then EEC), against the single currency, against European integration and against a Federal Europe. An emerging economic recession and more austerity made things worse. By November, Chancellor Nigel Lawson resigned, and on Nov. 20 her leadership was challenged again, this time by one of her prominent ministers, Michael Heseltine. In the ensuing ballot, Thatcher still came first after getting the votes of 200 MPs, but Heseltine came close enough with 152 votes. A 15 percent vote difference between the first and the second contender was needed according to the party rules. He got 14 percent. Still, Thatcher was advised by the party not to insist on going to a second ballot. Reluctantly, she had to resign in tears on Nov. 22.
The dramatic way by which a powerful prime minister like Thatcher who had won in the elections was removed from office by her own party, comes to anybody’s mind after the political storm that hit Britain last week. There are similar components: a stubborn and power-thirsty prime minister, austerity measures, cuts in the NHS, clash with the EU and the rise of the Labour Party.
The Elders of the Conservative Party are again being called to act. Are they going to use a stalking horse and a leadership challenge? Or are they going to use a faster method, like some of their MPs defeating the government program at the parliament in a few days? “Theresa May is a dead woman walking,” said George Osborne, the previous chancellor under David Cameron, yesterday. Because a government that needs the support of an extremely nationalist party like the DUP to survive, can be an ideological embarrassment that the Conservatives can ill afford. And, worse, Jeremy Corbyn is getting ready to take over.