In her two short years in office, the historical comparisons chart May’s rise and fall. Her premiership began with comparisons to Margaret Thatcher, encapsulated in the Daily Mail’s ‘Steel of the New Iron Lady’ cartoon. After June 2017 commentators turned to the troubled premierships of John Major, Gordon Brown and James Callaghan. But what if historians are looking in the wrong place? Does the Neville Chamberlain tag tells us more about May than Johnson?
Chamberlain’s name is, of course, synonymous with failure and weakness. He was a champion of appeasement who embarked in 1937 on a “special and personal mission to come to friendly terms with the dictators of Italy and Germany”. The threats of the 1930s were, of course, far graver than May’s, and he is one of the few prime ministers whose difficulties make Brexit look simple. He faced war with two fascist dictators (with the USSR lurking behind).
Though it’s a comparison no prime minister would want to hear, at first glance certain May-Chamberlain parallels are intriguing. Both leaders had a business background, experience in local government and served as Conservative party chairs. Both were ‘takeover’ leaders, following on from Stanley Baldwin and David Cameron, who were themselves rather too relaxed and stumbled when they put their ‘party before their country’.
The two leaders made their name as domestic politicians who styled themselves as radical reformers. Chamberlain was a highly successful and innovative Secretary of State for Health (twice), helping lay the foundations of Labour’s later Welfare State. May was the second longest serving Home Secretary since the 1940s, pushing domestic violence reform (while dog whistling over immigrants). Critics felt both had too little or narrow experience of foreign affairs. Churchill described Chamberlain as ‘a Birmingham town councillor who looks at our national affairs through the wrong end of a municipal drainpipe’ while Attlee spoke of his ear being permanently tuned to ‘Midland Regional’. May too was seen as having limited interaction with the EU as Home Secretary, from which she drew all the wrong lessons, with her eyes permanently fixed on the UK side of a Border agency desk.
Once in Downing Street, Chamberlain and May went from huge success to deep failure. The two leaders sought to navigating huge, complex issues involving Britain’s status as European and global power, its influence and future relations. Both lost a powerful Foreign Secretary and rival to resignation (though Boris should note it took Anthony Eden 17 years to get to Downing Street) and had to appoint, eventually, sworn enemies to their Cabinet (Churchill and Gove).
May gambled away her authority on a general election in June 2017 when her slogans of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and ‘strong and stable leadership’ gave way to ‘weak and wobbly’. Chamberlain gambled his on a series of meetings with Hitler. After his visit Munich, he was cheered into the night from Downing Street by happy crowds until he opened the window and famously, fatally, declared ‘Peace for our time’. Their popularity may have been rather exaggerated: Chamberlain went to great lengths to manipulate the presswhile Murdoch has “astounding access to Downing Street”.
Their personalities too seem similar. Both were diligent and hard-working with a “narrow sharp edged efficiency”. They were also aloof, secretive, and obstinate and given to narrow thinking, with an unwillingness to back down: happy, in Churchill’s phrase, ‘to strive continually in the teeth of facts’. Their lack of charisma was hidden behind symbolic props, in Chamberlain’s case an umbrella (see this great article) and in May’s her kitten heels.
It was over pieces of paper that the two leaders came unstuck. Chamberlain’s famous Munich Agreement, a piece of paper hastily signed by himself and Hitler, was supposed to secure European peace (see Chamberlain’s Cabinet report and the agreement here and his notes of his first meeting with Hitler here). May’s first document was her article 50 letter, sent at the cost of £985.50 according to this FOI response, which was, it now seems, despatched too early. Her December 2017 ‘backstop’ agreement, requiring a late-night flight that Chamberlain pioneered, was the second, which seems to have fallen apart in months. All eyes are now on what the third piece of paper, a UK-EU agreement, might say.
The verdict of history has been passed on Chamberlain, partly because Churchill wrote it. It now awaits May. She can only hope that she won’t have to repeat Chamberlain’s remarkable admission of failure in September 1939: ‘Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life, has crashed into ruins’.