by Atul Hatwal
The ascension of a new party leader is usually a time for rushed, breathless hagiographies and fears among opponents, within and without their party, that a new tide will sweep away their forces.
Allow me to demur.
Theresa May has demonstrated many qualities to become prime minister designate, but her position is far from imperious.
For those of us around in Westminster in the 1990s, there are some recognisable contours to the new political landscape that now confronts Labour, following the tsunami of the past three weeks.
A major economic event fundamentally that changes the narrative on who can be trusted on the economy. Personal enmities and ideological divisions spilling into public view across the Conservative party. A Tory leader facing the prospect of recession while trying to protect a small parliamentary majority.
It all feels rather familiar.
In the 1990s, the starting point was Black Wednesday. In the mid-2010s, it’s Brexit.
In 1992, Sterling’s exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) re-defined the Tories’ image of economic competence. Whatever the rights and wrongs of leaving the ERM, it became the prism through which the ongoing recession was reported.
In the process, the Conservatives became associated with a deadly combination of economic incompetence and pain.
Labour still needed to win the public’s trust on the economy, but Black Wednesday meant the Tories had lost it.
This shift in public perception, as the economy struggled, contributed towards making the management of a small parliamentary majority – difficult at the best of times – a virtual impossibility.
John Major had won a shock victory in 1992 and secured a very clear personal mandate. More people voted for the Conservatives in 1992 – just over 14m – than have voted for any other British party. Ever.
It counted for nothing as his MPs learned that even small numbers working together could force the government to back down on their pet topics.
What started with Maastricht spilled over into rebellions on anything and everything, battering a decent if inadequate leader.
Theresa May is about to walk in John Major’s shoes.
If anything, her task is even more difficult.
She does not possess the electoral validation of John Major, nor any endorsement from the party membership. In this respect, her mandate more mirrors Gordon Brown’s.
John Major’s majority of 21 was higher than the 16 which sustains the current Tory administration.
And while he had to contend with a vocal and determined, core of Eurosceptics intent on causing trouble, they were still a minority.
In contrast, Theresa May leads a party that is deeply split between Brexiteers and Remainers who were, until three weeks ago, engaged in full civil war. She will have to manage people who have fallen out at a deeply personal level and might not be prepared to fall back in.
Just two weeks ago, Boris Johnson’s campaign manager, Ben Wallace, was threatening Michael Gove with a penectomy. These were people who had been on the same side of the EU referendum battle a few days earlier.
John Major was able to forge a deal and then a partnership with his most likely rival for the leadership, Michael Heseltine. It is unlikely Theresa May will be so fortunate with the two most dangerous princes over the water – Boris Johnson and George Osborne.
Each has a camp with MPs and journalists in attendance. Even if they both opt to serve in her government, what price rumours of challenges to the May leadership when the economic waters become more choppy and her MPs start to feel nervous about the judgement of the electorate?
Whitehall whispers cast Theresa May as a reluctant decision-maker. As with John Major, she will soon discover just how different Number 10 is to being in charge of a single department.
Her caution and desire to be personally on top of the detail across the Home Office brief might have helped her to avoid the pitfalls which have befallen previous Home Secretaries. But they will lead to administrative sclerosis across government if she tries to replicate this approach in Number 10.
The gangrene of bureaucratic inertia will stifle decision-making and leave the prime minister vulnerable to being driven by events. Once again, the comparison with Brown maybe more apposite here. His leaden-footed handling of expenses, allowing David Cameron to control the agenda, despite his own exigencies, was a case study in how not to manage from Number 10.
And if she can navigate all of these tribulations – a party reputation for economic competence that is dented, likely recession, party splits, rivals manoeuvring for her crown and the rigours of running the country, then comes the toughest decision of all: hard or soft Brexit.
The decision is a political iceberg to wreck any Tory administration: whether to exit the single market fully, with all that entails in terms of economic pain as firms face tariffs to trade in Europe or to strike a compromise that retains market access for some measure of freedom of movement and face the fury of her right-wing.
Given the deep divisions between Brexiteers and Remainers on this question, its debatable whether there is any strategy that could hold the Tory party together.
These are huge challenges that Theresa May faces. In most circumstances they would rightly be described as insurmountable.
John Major faced fewer and was destroyed after starting from a stronger position.
However, one major factor is in Theresa May’s favour, something that is very different to the 1990s.
After the 1992 election, Labour was led by John Smith and then Tony Blair. Both were well suited to providing the calm reassurance that the British public yearned for as the Tories turned in on themselves.
Both were canny parliamentary performers and had teams around them that helped maximise the Tories’ discomfort.
In the chaotic world, where instability is gripping politics, where the right of the Conservative party has a choke-hold on the prime minister, when recession is advancing steadily over the country and Brexit negotiations are shrouding the future in uncertainty, Jeremy Corbyn is not the man to give Britons’ the safety they crave.
He is however the one man who can give Theresa May the security of tenure in Number 10 to ride out the storms that she knows are coming.
Rather than address any of the tumultous events of the yesterday – the withdrawal of Andrea Leadsom, the anointment of Theresa May, the declaration of a challenge by Angela Eagle to his leadership – Jeremy Corbyn’s main public event was to speak to the Cuba Solidarity campaign in parliament.
If Labour just had a proper leader, someone who understood their role as leader of the opposition, a prime minister in waiting, the party would find that the political horizon is far from bleak.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut