Farewell the plumèd troop, and the big wars,
That make ambition virtue!...
Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone!
Here I intuit the thoughts of Theresa May, as she prepares to leave office. For her though the office of Prime Minister is not an “occupation,” it is the self. Take, for example, being welcomed on the steps of the Elysees Palace by President Macron, flanked by the guard in their Napoleonic uniforms. It is not an experience to be forgotten, and nothing like it will return in later life. May has had her Last Supper at Chequers, without a court painter to immortalize the event. After that, the outward show took over, stylized, but void of rhetoric. Her departure today went off without the sonorities of State, or solemn music on radio and TV. She delivered her last Prime Minister’s Questions, in which the bitterness of her clashes with Jeremy Corbyn were not much muted. At the end, visibly emotional, she left the chamber to a standing ovation from the Tories. Labour MPs remained stolidly rooted to their seats. May was then driven in the Prime Ministerial limousine to Buckingham Palace to resign. She left it for Maidenhead in a private car. The State reserves its finest trappings for a servant who is still on the job: if not, not. It is as unlike the USA as you can get: the president is the manifestation of the nation at all times and is treated with the honor and glory of his great office. The Prime Minister is the servant of the monarch, whose function is to be of use to the monarch, that is, the State. In essence the relationship is a scaled-down version of Louis XIV and Colbert. When the minister’s usefulness is exhausted, he (I do not have to add the dutiful “or she” on all occasions) is let go. It’s the system, and the system works. The departing Prime Minister will have a splendid pension and personal security with bodyguards for life, and that’s it. She might opt for a seat in the House of Lords, that rather déclassé body. Recent Prime Ministers have preferred not to join the motley crew they have themselves recommended for elevation. It would be embarrassing, and moreover they would have to declare details of their income, which will shoot up post-retirement. Blair’s rocket put him into orbit. If however it does come to a coat of arms, I would suggest, should the College of Heralds permit it, a limpet couchant on a field vert.
Theresa May fought long and hard to retain her position, well after it was seen as untenable. She had to be moved out by main force, as the Conservative Party made clear that she was a dire threat to its own existence. That most fashionable of terms, “existential” (which has moved on from its past association with J.-P. Sartre) was often cited in that connection. The Tories faced a disaster scenario if the Brexit deadline (October 31) were missed again. They reckoned that they had no chance with May in Downing Street. And so they forced May to stand down, creating a leadership contest in which the last two candidates are made the choice of the membership at large. If one of them was Boris Johnson, the thing was over. He is massively popular and was certain to defeat his rival, Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary. And so it proved; by a clear 2-1 majority Boris was declared the winner. He assumes office as Prime Minister today and will begin the work immediately. “Of that,” as Horatio says of the Danish change of government, “I shall have also cause to speak.”
Ralph Berry writes from England.