In fairness, May’s “stability” was always an invention. As early as January, the Economist had dubbed her “Theresa Maybe” for her lack of any clear strategy on Brexit and habit for backing off key promises, not least the election itself. But this was more than just a nickname now. Her ineptitude had become the main event. Her sternness turned to nervousness; her convictions became calamities. This continues to be the case now, just days before the election. She has become so frightened of saying something wrong that she almost ceased to speak at all, avoiding all televised debates and interviews where possible. The Iron Lady had been rebooted as the Robot Lady: endlessly repeating her programmed phrases, incapable of directly answering questions, and occasionally breaking into a strange, paranoid laugh that suggested a glitch in her software.
The two tragic terrorist attacks on London and Manchester have slightly altered the mood of the campaign. Overall, the shift in concerns—away from future hopes and towards present fears—is likely to work in May’s favor, even if she would never have wished for such a turn. She has been able to present herself, once again, as a stern “unity” leader, transcending party politics for the sake of the nation.
Yet even this respite has proved fleeting. A new narrative has taken root. As home secretary between 2010 and 2016, national security was May’s domain. During that stretch, she cut the size of the police force, despite warnings not to do so. (She dismissed worries over slashing the force’s numbers as “crying wolf.”) Corbyn has called on her to resign. So, too, has a former Conservative Party advisor. May’s typically robotic response has been to re-invoke the Corbyn-as-threat-to-national-security and the Corbyn-as-terrorist-sympathizer slogans. These attacks rely on wild, deliberate misrepresentations of Corbyn’s stance on the IRA, and past, favorable remarks about Hamas and Hezbollah for which he has since apologized. A resolute pacifist, he would never support the violent strategies of such groups, even if he might hold some sympathy for their struggles.
Where possible, she also takes shelter in her own tautology: Brexit means Brexit. This was meant to be a “Brexit election,” after all, and she seems to think that if she can say “Brexit” enough times, she can return it to its course. “You can only deliver Brexit if you believe in Brexit,” she recently declared. But almost 12 months on, we’re still yet to hear exactly what Brexit means.
The beauty of May’s meaningless aphorisms is that Brexit can then be used to justify virtually anything. After initially avoiding calling an election because of Brexit, and then going ahead and calling an election because of Brexit, May now says she can’t campaign because of, well, Brexit. So when Corbyn challenged her to a televised leadership debate, hardly an unusual demand in a democracy, Theresa May said no, sneering that “he ought to be paying more attention to thinking about Brexit negotiations than appearing on television—that’s what I’m doing.”