Weakened May begs for support

Theresa May © Rex Features
Theresa May: a cry for help falls on deaf ears

Theresa May has been prime minister for just a year, and it is “hard to think” of many modern British leaders who have been “humbled” as “dramatically” and as quickly as her, says James Blitz in the Financial Times. For much of the year, May advocated a hard Brexit.

When she called a snap election on 18 April, she did so with “steely defiance”, lambasting opponents for wanting to “sabotage” her strategy. Three months on, the Tories have lost their Commons majority, May’s Brexit plan “lies in tatters”, and her approval ratings are lower than those of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a man once deemed entirely unelectable. There is talk among some senior Tories of replacing her.

So now, apparently recognising the “frailty of her position”, she is “reaching out to opposition parties on Brexit and other matters” and appealing for cross-party unity. “Come forward” with your ideas, “contribute”, don’t just criticise, she urged in a speech on Tuesday.

Corbyn’s response was to send May a copy of his party’s election manifesto, sharing a photo online of his attached personal message, says Francesca Gillett in London’s Evening Standard. She was mocked by the Conservative press, too. “May’s cry for help to Corbyn,” ran a headline in The Daily Telegraph. “Weakened May pleads for support from rivals,” said The Times.

“Anyone with eyes to see” can tell that May’s offer is based “not on principle but on parliamentary arithmetic”, says Tom Harris in The Daily Telegraph. Had she made the offer a year ago, from a stronger position, then she would have been “fêted as a courageous political pioneer, willing to shun her own right wing in defence of consensus politics”.

Instead, she is not only signalling her weakness, but also a more general “Tory crisis of confidence”, says Philip Johnston in the same paper. The problem is that in the absence of a parliamentary majority, “she is in no position to suggest the opposition adopt Conservative policies”. It is much more likely that a “new consensus will start to develop a left-of-centre economic and social agenda”.

Of course, “in truth, May is a setter of this trend”. Some of the ideas she has proposed both in the past and in the pre-election manifesto (a cap on energy prices, workers on company boards, improving the position of those working in the gig economy) are likely to attract support from Labour. But more generally, the Tories are “in danger of losing their nerve” and risk “giving up the right to shape the next consensus because they no longer believe strongly enough in their ideas”.

May doesn’t have any ideas, says Polly Toynbee in The Guardian. This has been “an inert year in which she has done nothing for the country, and even less for her party”. Beyond the “eight upcoming Brexit bills, there is little in the pipeline either”.

If she wants consensus on Brexit, she “needs to rescind her red lines… Her insistence on leaving the single market, customs union and European Court of Justice oversight has wrecked all hope of compromise. But her briefers still say she has no Brexit reverse gear – and the europhobes stand ready with knives at her back if she gives an inch.”

Yet the “great unravelling” has begun. She faces a Tory rebellion over the plan to leave European nuclear industry regulator Euratom, and this week a new cross-party group to oppose a hard Brexit has been launched. As for Corbyn, Labour MPs expect him to join the soft Brexiteers, regardless of his own views. His route to No. 10 is via “joining Brexit rebellions that split the Tories”.

The bigger question is whether it is in the national interest that May should continue as prime minister, says The Independent. “If she is driven to begging the opposition for policies, perhaps she should give way to someone who has a clearer idea of the way ahead.”