This isn’t 1980 and Theresa May isn’t Jimmy Carter

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  • 27 March 2018

I expected to see articles popping up comparing the British Prime Minister to Jimmy Carter on the eve of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

On the face of it, the soil was fertile for a comparative piece: a partial boycott of a global sporting event, which will show case Russia to the world and a time where relations between Russia and the West are and were at low points; not to mention that both are considered weak leaders playing bad hands with elections looming[1].

And this is precisely the point – May isn’t Carter. She just desperately wants to be.

On Christmas weekend 1979, the USSR invaded Afghanistan. From Moscow’s perspective, the reasons were an intertwined set of concerns, but the reaction is what matters for this piece.

President Carter’s response was to withdraw the ambassador, declare an embargo and arm the Afghan freedom fighters. Carter then warned the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, that should the Soviets go any further, the USA would respond militarily. Moreover, he joined with the Olympic Committee to withdraw the USA from the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

To put this somewhat crudely, that took serious balls. With regards to whether these actions had any effect, the Soviets certainly went no further. Although, it wasn’t until Gorbachev came in that the USSR withdrew its troops. Then again, it was also not until inauguration day 1981 that the hostages were released from Iran.

May isn’t Carter because the situations are not at all the same – however much she needs it to be. The culprits of the poisoning are unknown and there is no proof linking this to the Russian government. The motive behind it matters little to the British public. The ambassadors, for now, are still in Moscow and London respectively, and England will take part in the Football World Cup (and likely go out in the second round).

This runs much deeper, however. For all the faults of Carter’s administration, he had two things in his favour going into the 1980 election. Firstly, Carter largely had the support of his party. May, as the former chancellor George Osborne put it, is a dead woman walking. Secondly, many forget that Carter was neck and neck with Ronald Reagan in the polls right up until the last seconds of the campaign. While the gap between Labour and the Conservatives isn’t huge, few are expecting a Conservative victory on any scale.

During his presidency, Carter also signed SALT II. May’s communication with the Russians is unmemorable and practically nonexistent. She sent Boris Johnson, a clown without makeup, to meet Sergei Lavrov – who has nearly two decades of experience in international relations. Carter had Cyrus Vance – who despite other failures, helped negotiate SALT II and avoid a military conflict in Afghanistan.

May needs the poisoning incident to translate into a big political win. Her premiership has so far lacked any notable success, and is defined by U-turns and chaos. Handling this in a (irony intended) ‘strong and stable’ manner, could save face and distract the British population from the upcoming U-turns on healthcare and Brexit.

The irony does not end here, however. May is not strong enough to get away with boycotting the World Cup. Carter was and came out favourably. This is, in part, because the USSR was the enemy in those days. Few Britons fear Russia like they used to. Moreover, public opinion is not fully supportive of her response to the Russian government, either. Other countries expelling Russian diplomats also matters not to the British public.

Carter’s record was not completely tainted, either. He had some successes in foreign and domestic policy that he relied on in the 1980 election. May has none that the average person could name.

Assuming May is deposed before the next election, the Conservative’s only hope of victory is false equivalency. They need to convince the British public that a Jeremy Corbyn led Labour government would be far worse than anything they could imagine.

Carter stood a chance in 1980. In the kindest way possible, May is not the person to convince Britons of anything; she already failed in 2017.

 

[1] Officially, the UK does not have a general election scheduled until 2022, but it would not be a surprise to see another around the time Brexit happens. At least a change of Prime Minister before 2022 is highly likely.

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