“Hey, I’ve arrived at Twyford” I said into the first mobile phone I ever owned. This being 2005 it was, inevitably, a Nokia 3510. “Oh OK” came the reply from Simon, the Liberal Democrat organiser for Maidenhead constituency, followed by a pause. “But I thought we’d agreed to meet at Maidenhead station” he continued. “Oh shit, yes we did” I replied.
And so began my career as a Liberal Democrat activist. I did eventually get to Maidenhead and start knocking on doors and delivering leaflets. I was campaigning on behalf of Kathy Newbound, a popular local councillor in the traditional mould of Lib Dem community activists. The Party had a come a credible second in the seat in the 2001 General Election and had gained further ground in the local elections that followed.
And it was alluring for another reason: the MP our victory would unseat was high profile. At that point she was Shadow Secretary of State for Families but she had previously been the Chairman of the Conservative Party. In which role, she had made herself notorious for telling the Tories they were perceived as ‘the nasty party’. Despite that what most people knew her for was her flamboyant taste in footwear.
The Liberal Democrat effort to defeat Theresa May was part of what became known as the ‘decapitation strategy‘. It is remembered as an outright failure. Virtually all the senior Tories it targeted dug in and built up the personal votes in their constituencies. At the same time CCHQ employed some of the most sophisticated campaigning British politics had yet seen. For example, they used data purchased from marketing firms to find voters susceptible to messages about the further reaches of the Liberal Democrat manifesto. So owners of land rovers got direct mail about the Lib Dem plans for a tax on 4x4s. At a time when the Liberal Democrats still had to rely on dropping the same leaflet through every door on a street, this was devastating stuff. Michael Howard’s majority barely fell and remained well over 10,000. David Davis’ went from under 2,000 to over 5,000. And Theresa May’s basically doubled.
Nonetheless, the strategy was not quite a total failure. Shadow Education Secretary Tim Collins was defeated by one Tim Farron. So it’s not totally implausible that Mrs May might have lost her seat back in 2005. If that had happened how would Britain now be different?
We could ask if there are features of her tenure as Home Secretary that are unique to her as an individual and which another Conservative would not have replicated?
But the more interesting question is who would now be Prime Minister? Without the rocks of Mrs May’s childlessness to run aground on, would Andrea Leadsom have triumphed? Would the void have been filled by another Remain supporting cabinet minister? Would Gove or Johnson have been able to satisfy their palpable craving for the top job? Or would Mrs May simply have re-entered parliament in 2010 either for Maidenhead or another constituency, and then continued her path to the premiership?
Absent the final option, my read is that British politics would now be pretty different. Mrs May’s peculiar combination of having supported remain but not too loudly, having been in Mr Cameron’s cabinet but not being close to him, of being culturally aligned with the Party’s grassroots and having a reputation for being tough on immigration allowed her to contain the divides within the Conservatives. I do not see anyone else with a similar combination and I suspect that without her the Party would now be fighting itself in a positively Labour like fashion.