From austerity to zero hours contracts

Three years and 26 letters worth of scandals, gaffes and failures

& Matthew Smith 9th June 2019

A – Austerity

“People need to know that the austerity is over and that their hard work has paid off,” said Theresa May at party conference in 2018. But without her announcement, it would have been difficult to tell.

While the cuts from May’s government haven’t been as damaging as Cameron and Osbourne’s, the effects of a decade of strict public spending are still hurting those who rely on public services — to the extent that last month a UN official said it has inflicted “great misery“.  

It’s no clearer now when or if her promise to start investing was supposed to actually come through. The Brexit process has overshadowed and confused spending matters, and chancellor Phillip Hammond has warned that even if budgets aren’t cut, they still may not keep pace with inflation; this would result in continued “real terms cuts in day-to-day spending on public services outside of health, defence and overseas aid” according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

And with May’s departure further complicating matters, it could be a while yet before the country’s hard work actually pays dividends.

B – Brexit 

For many prime ministers, one issue will be remembered above all else when we look back at their time in power. Some might say this is unfair, to reduce Blair to just the Iraq war or Thatcher to the decimation of the miners. For those mentioned you can see the argument; those issues might have been massive, but at least those prime ministers did other significant things with their time in office.

Theresa May will be remembered as the Brexit prime minister, but what’s worse, she will be remembered as the Brexit prime minister who didn’t even deliver Brexit. Perhaps more so than any other British leader, she took office with one real task to complete, and she leaves office a couple of years later having failed to complete it.

C – Compromise 

In one particularly jarring part of May’s resignation speech, she quoted Sir Nicholas Winton, who helped get child refugees into Britain during the second world war, and talked up the benefits of “compromise”. It’s not a dirty word, she said.

If only she’d heeded her own advice sooner. May entered office with a huge problem: a country divided more or less down the middle. As a tepid Remain voter who had enough credentials among Leave-supporters following her time in the Home Office, May was ideally suited to deliver a compromise fitting of a 52/48 split vote. Instead, she polarised the country; criticising remainers endlessly, carelessly talking up the prospect of a no-deal to scare her opponents and legitimising it, using her pulpit to feed the betrayal narrative, and ultimately bringing Britain to its most divided state since the civil war, or at least since the first series of Pop Idol (Gareth Gates was robbed pass it on). 

Compromise indeed, Theresa.

D – Dancing

T. May’s time as PM hasn’t provided us with much levity. Nor has she been able to elicit much empathy from the British public at large, who’ve generally found her hard to relate to.

But for a few days in August 2018, this all changed. Not once, but twice in the space a few days, Theresa May got roped into doing some dancing while out and about in South Africa. She danced not once, but twice, during that visit. The footage of both incidents should come with a severe cringe-warning. Partly though, we were laughing with her on these occasions, not just at her. Her awkwardness is almost endearing, her body’s seeming inability to be loose and fun and free is, if nothing else, quintessentially English. OK Theresa, we thought, perhaps you are a bit like us after all.

But then came the conference dance, and all was lost. It had the vibe of a supply teacher who tries to get in on the class banter by poking fun at themselves. Neither funny nor endearing. 

The dancing was of course bad. Very bad. But the content? The content was good.

E –  Election

If you subscribe to the alternate universe theory, somewhere out there exists a world where people still assume in 2019 that Theresa May is a competent politician, because in that universe she never called a snap election.

Remember all that? How for months she said there definitely wouldn’t be an election, and then she went on a walking holiday and apparently just changed her mind. Remember when she tried to pretend the election wasn’t about crushing Labour and that she actually needed a solid majority to negotiate with Brussels, even though that was blatant bollocks? Remember how all the commentators were predicting astronomical majorities for the Tories right up until polling day but then they had to cobble together a government by bunging the DUP a billion pounds?

For all the joy that election gave us, as well as an opportunity to show that socialism can be electable, perhaps we’ve more reason to be grateful to Theresa May than we thought. 

F – Fields of wheat 

It may not have been Frost-Nixon but Julie Etchingham’s interview with May became one of the most remembered moments of the 2017 general election. The host of ITV’s Tonight programme asked the prime minister to recall the naughtiest thing she had ever done. May, given the chance to endear herself to the country, took it with her trademark zeal; she started to stumble over herself, tried to divert, and then ultimately came up with an unquestionably tame answer – running through fields of wheat with her friends, to the annoyance of some farmers.

What would have been the right answer for a prime minister fighting an election? Maybe there isn’t a perfect response but, for someone who had been accused of being robotic, stiff and uptight, it definitely wasn’t this one. Ironically, this is the one joke that May can’t seem to run away from.

G – Grenfell 

It’s a testament to both her political tone-deafness and her shortage of notable accomplishments as PM that Theresa May made reference to government’s handling of the Grenfell disaster in her resignation speech — much to the disgust of the Fire Brigades Union and the Justice4Grenfell campaign group, it’s worth noting.

It would be far too simplistic, and would let too many other people off the hook, to lay the blame for the Grenfell Tower tragedy at May’s door. But her response left much to be desired, both in a human sense in the immediate aftermath, and as head of a government which still, two years later, has failed to adequately respond to the crisis in social housing the disaster highlighted.

H – Hostile environment 

The role that put May into Number 10 was one plagued with controversy. As home secretary, she said that she wanted Britain to create a “really hostile environment for illegal migration” and as a result emboldened those within the immigration system.

This resulted in doctors and landlords being ordered to check immigration statuses before offering services, the introduction of the infamous “go home” vans, and removals under a “deport-now appeal-later” premise that was ruled unlawful and came back under the spotlight during the Windrush scandal.

Few have seen the hostile environment as a successful operation because, despite its aims to reduce illegal immigration, it has instead contributed to an already sour discussion about immigration in this country.  It’s no surprise that current home secretary Sajid Javid distanced himself from the phrase since his first outing in the post.

I – Injustices, burning 

Theresa May kicked off her prime ministerial career on a promising note, with a speech on the steps of Downing Street in which she vowed to tackle seven burning injustices, from discrepancies in life expectancy between rich and poor, to young people struggling to get on the housing market. 

How did she do?

In most of the seven areas, there’s been no positive change or things have actually got worse. This is the case for the life expectancy gap, racial disparities in policing and young people struggling to get on the property ladder. In other areas, it’s difficult to measure what May’s impact has been, or there have been improvements which follow trends that began before she took office.

So not great then. Though at least now if she wants to address the cause of those injustices, she can just talk to herself in the mirror.

J – Jam

“I scrape mould off the top of jam and eat what’s underneath,” Theresa May apparently told cabinet members during a discussion on food waste earlier this year.

“…Eat what’s underneath” is certainly the creepiest way of saying that but is it Good, Actually? Like it’s a kind of odd thing to share in a meeting and no doubt it just straight-up sounds weird, but shouldn’t we generally be against unnecessary food waste?  

K -Kitten heels

Notwithstanding the sentiments expressed in the next entry, can we talk about kitten heels? They’re bad, right? And like, it’s fine if you don’t particularly care about shoes and you’re just like “whatever man, kitten heels, normal heels, a shoe is a shoe amirite?” but Theresa May really seems keen on her shoes, she actively is proud of her taste in shoes and yet, this? Idk. 

Still, we wouldn’t have splashed on it. Which brings us nicely to…

L – Legs-it!

The Daily Mail’s creepy af “Who wins Legs-it?” front page was met with condemnation across the political spectrum, but throughout her time as PM May has endured similar treatment.

Her performance has been well-deserving of criticism and intense scrutiny but far too much of it has been laced with sexism. Whether it’s Tory MPs using gratuitously violent language in anonymous briefings against her or interviewers asking about “letting her hair down with girlfriends”, it’s been pretty grim at times.

M – Memes

Sure, memes have been a feature of online life and even politics since well before Theresa May took office, but it’s only in the last few years that political memes became truly influential. The 2017 General Election, historians of the future will argue, was the first political contest in British history to have been decided by who had the better memes.

The way both Corbyn and May were portrayed via meme reveals a lot about the way a certain demographic of voters felt about them. Corbyn was typically portrayed as “the absolute boy”, superimposed onto Kevin Keegan or shown selflessly holding up a loudspeaker. Theresa May on the otherhand was caricatured as Mr Burns and famously dubbed “the Maybot”.  

The “Corbyn or May” comparison memes though were, for me, the funniest shit. 

N – Nothing has changed

Let’s say that, hypothetically, you’re in a situation where you really really want people to think that nothing has changed, even though it clearly has. For argument’s sake, let’s say you’re, oh I don’t know, rowing back on a deeply unpopular manifesto pledge to effectively charge people money for getting dementia but you want to pretend that that was never the plan, what would you say?

The best way, surely, to convince people that nothing has changed would, in this purely hypothetical scenario, be just to say that, wouldn’t it? Just say “nothing has changed” in a kind of reedy, irritated voice. Yeah, just go “nothing has changed” in a way that is so unconvincing that even you don’t believe it yourself the first time and feel the need to say it again, to yourself as much as anyone else.

O –  Official Portrait 

What is the absolute best thing you can spend £33.33+VAT on? Don’t answer yet, because whatever you’re about to say, you’re wrong.

The correct answer is, of course, an official portrait of Prime Minister Theresa May, purchasable from the Association of Conservative Clubs.

What can you do with it? It would be quicker to say what you can’t do with it: nothing! Though one idea would be to recreate the minor controversy which swept Oxford University’s geography department when said portrait was mounted on the walls as part of an exhibition intended to inspire future geographers. Inevitably this decision culminated in a campaign to have the portrait torn down, with those arguing for it to go uniting under the #notallgeographers hashtag, which, yeah, great.

The portrait is still up, but opponents of it have found a way to express their displeasure nonetheless.

P – P45

Some people, I’m told, felt sorry for Theresa May during her resignation speech. Others, I am led to believe, were too busy pissing themselves laughing to hear what she was saying. Some even called it “the best moment of her career”.

That seems a little harsh. My personal favourite T. May moment came during her second party conference speech as Prime Minister, when she’d already suffered through an excruciating coughing fit, and had the letters on the sign behind her fall down. She was handed a mock-up P45 by the annoying prank guy, Lee Nelson (real name Simon Bodkin). The best thing about this exchange is that the “prankster” is able to just stand there waving it at her for ages, and May actually has to just take it off him, rather than someone whisking him away. Gold.

Q – Quitting 

Has there ever been a Prime Minister who has faced so many calls to stand down? Nobody can accuse Theresa May of being a quitter. Through it all, she’s kept on keeping on and for that you, er, gotta hand it to her? 

Her calling and losing of the general election, Grenfell, Windrush, cabinet walkouts and several major defeats on her main policy have all prompted calls for her resignation which went unanswered. May pioneered an entirely new method of dealing with the type of situations which would have forced previous PMs to stand down. When faced with seemingly unquestionable calls for her resignation, time after time May has deployed this masterful tactic of just being like “er, no” and eking out another few months in power. 

“Fuck you, and the democratic norms you rode in on!” she says.

R – Records

Though she might not have much cause to be proud of them, and I don’t see the Guinness Book people sending her out any certificates, Theresa May did break some records as prime minister.

She suffered the largest defeat in modern history on her flagship EU policy, losing by 230 votes in the House of Commons. She also saw more ministers resign during her tenure as prime minister than any other PM in modern history.

It’s speculated that there’s one particular record May is keen to surpass. It’s thought that she has held off on resigning until now so as to at least outlast Gordon Brown, who managed two years and 319 days as Prime Minister. When May steps down on 7 June she will have served two years and 330 days.

Oh also her government was found to be in contempt of Parliament, and that’s just never even happened before, which is, cool?

S – Strong and stable

Labour may have been accused of promising the world with their 2017 manifesto but the Tories definitely weren’t. Instead, May offered the simple premise of “strong and stable” leadership to guide the country through tumultuous times. Then she offered it again. And again. And again, to the point that even the EU’s negotiator was using it to poke fun at May’s misfortune.

It may have been a succinct soundbite on its first airing, but by the end of a disastrous election campaign, it had become a fully-fledged punchline.

T – Trump 

Hosting Donald Trump on an already contentious state visit is perhaps not the ideal end of May’s run as prime minister. While she might have been hopeful that any steps towards a trade deal could be a positive way to leave the role, instead it has highlighted some embarrassments from the past couple of years.

Relations between the pair have been uneasy over the past couple of years, with Trump being critical of May’s leadership to the point of tweeting in support of her political rivals throughout her time in office. The pair’s conflicting styles have seen relations between the countries suffer since 2016, and it has reached a point that many claim, despite the hand-holding, Britain’s influence in Washington is at “a low point”.

U – UN rapporteur

It’s all too easy when looking back over May’s time as PM to write her off as a banter prime minister — someone who was, yes, ineffective, but ultimately harmless, if only as a result of incompetence.

But to do that is to deny May the agency she clearly possesses and to ignore the way she has presided over the back-end of the austerity agenda and therefore played a significant part in what an independent expert on behalf of the UN called “the systematic immiseration of millions”.

Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, visited Britain in 2018 and his verdict was damning.

V – Vague and nebulous

May’s relations with the EU were, it’s probably fair to say, not great.

There was always going to be a slightly adversarial edge to our relationship with the EU post-Brexit, and May was given the difficult task of being the first PM to try and navigate these waters after the referendum. May’s willingness to be openly hostile to the EU in order to court voters and colleagues at home was always going to cause problems. And how could we realistically expect the EU negotiating team to have anything but disdain for someone who, with her choice of ministers, condemned them to spend endless hours locked in a room with first David Davis, then Dominic Raab?

This tumultuous relationship with the EU came to a head rather publicly at a Brussels summit in December, when May confronted European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker in full view of the world’s media, remonstrating him for apparently calling her and “vague” and “nebulous”.

W – Windrush

Theresa May might not have been head of the department directly responsible for the Windrush scandal at the time it came to light, but having come to 10 Downing Street fresh from the Home Office where she engineered the policies and wider ethos which led to the scandal, you’d struggle to find anyone more directly responsible for what happened.

We’ll likely never know the exact numbers and circumstances involved but at least 83 people, mostly of Caribbean heritage, were wrongly deported from the UK, with many more suffering detention, harassment and other consequences as a result of the hostile environment policy (see above).

X – Xenophobic policy

I mean, did you read the last one?

Y – Yugoslav footballer

Is this too mean? Like, I really see it. Someone’s said it in the replies, but she actually looks like a former Bulgarian player Trifon Ivanov, who helped Bulgaria to a surprisingly decent showing at the 1994 World Cup.

Z – Zero hours contracts 

Ok, so I mean, there’s no particularly strong link between May and zero hours contracts, barring the fact that she presided over a rise in their prevalence and failed as PM to create a policy which adequately addressed a rapidly shifting labour market, the insecurity of which is perhaps best exemplified by zero hour contracts? A slight reach, I know.

If only she’d ridden a zebra.

& Matthew Smith 9th June 2019