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Theresa May: A Political Obituary

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By:Ralph Berry | July 18, 2019

The time for Theresa May’s political obituary is at hand. I write it with relish. There never was a politician on whom the gods lavished such favors, and who squandered their gifts with such perverse determination. She was presented with the leadership of the United Kingdom on a silver plate, without having to fight for it or defeat any other candidate, through a series of freak chances. And then she mulishly insisted upon a series of doomed positions that led, as they were increasingly predicted, to total failure. Theresa May was given a single task: to take the UK out of the European Union.  She began that task as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party with a Parliamentary majority. After three years Britain is still imprisoned in the EU, with no immediate prospect of release, and May has been forced to stand down. The Government, its past majority, and the governing party are in ruins. How did this lamentable state come about?

The answer is in the mind of Theresa May. One who was at school with her has said that she wanted to be the first woman Prime Minister and was annoyed that Margaret Thatcher got there first. That was the first sign that she drastically overvalued her own abilities, which were not stellar. From her grammar school she went to read geography at St Hugh’s, Oxford, an all-women college. Geography was then widely seen as advanced coloring-book work (though its status rose somewhat after the discovery of global warming, which geographists latched on to). She took a second-class degree, referred to in university circles as a “Desmond” [Tutu = 2.2]. It was cruelly said that she had taken a second-class degree in a second-rate subject in a second-line college. But it was Oxford, the maker of careers, and in 1997 she was elected Conservative MP for a safe seat, Maidenhead.

Theresa May came to national attention in the Conservative conference of 2002, when as Chairwoman she said: “You know what some people call us: the nasty party.” That phrase at once entered the permanent lexicon of politics. It is both true and misleading. All parties are “nasty” in their own way. The charge can be applied variously to Conservatives, Labour, and LibDems. But “nasty” was a gift to the party’s enemies, a betrayal later justified as “detoxifying the brand.”  That meant, as James Delingpole wrote, “that you do the enemy’s work for them, while sacrificing your bravest, best, and most articulate allies.” It is not good politics to decry your own party. But it made Theresa May’s name, and the beginning of her fame. She was on the progressive wing of the Tory party, then bewitched by Tony Blair, and thus opposed to any smack of traditionalism. Her watchwords were “consensus” and “compromise,” concepts alien to Thatcher. Her ambitions and work ethic took her through the lower echelons of government, and in 2010 Cameron made her Home Secretary. She held that post for six years, being regarded as a safe pair of hands though by no means universally approved. Those who worked closely with her reported an obstinate refusal to entertain the views of others, and a hostility to people cleverer than herself. When Cameron called the referendum on membership of the EU, she was quietly and unostentatiously on the Remain side, retaining the option of switching to Leave should they win. They did. The sudden resignation of Cameron, who had strongly recommended Remain, meant that five candidates stood for the leadership. May cannot have aimed at more than retaining her Cabinet seat. In what looked like a Californian death cult, four candidates committed political suicide, leaving May the last one standing. The 1922 Committee, which consists of all Conservative MPs not in the Government, then declared her victrix ludorum, charged with implementing Leave. They soon had cause to regret their decision.   

May’s decision to call a snap general election (May 2017, which she made during a health-enhancing walking tour in Snowdonia and without consulting her Cabinet, was a disaster. It was the worst election campaign in living memory, with the Tories losing overall 12 seats. The Prime Minister could well have resigned, but as other leaders have done decided that it was her duty to stay in office.  May is nothing if not dutiful. She vowed to the Tories: “I’ve got you into this mess, and I’ll get you out.” They believed her, or said they did.

The implacable mass of the European Union, from which Britain was ordered by the electorate to secede, remained immovable. In her dealings with the EU, May ignored the advice of Yanis Varoufakis: “Whatever you do, don’t negotiate.” As the former Greek finance minister, he had experienced the EU at its most pythonesque, as it crushed and swallowed Tsipras’s soon-ended struggle for Greek independence. But May knew better: obduracy in the service of incompetence was her hallmark. She entered into negotiations believing that the outcome would be a “deal”—a word that entered the lexicon only after she adopted it. There never was a reason to believe that the EU would offer any kind of acceptable deal to Britain, since it had to demonstrate that secession from the Union would be painful and humiliating. Any policy seeking to deflect this truth was delusional. May persisted with the mirage that she could negotiate a deal acceptable to the EU and UK, and her true aim, as it soon emerged, was “BRINO,” or “Brexit in name only.” Britain would remain tied to the EU’s customs union, better thought of as the Zollverein, under the jurisdiction of the European Court. She accepted the terms of engagement laid down by the EU, including sequencing, which meant that Britain could only discuss issues on the EU’s terms and timing. Her own “red lines” were later abandoned. In all the many difficulties with M. Barnier, the EU chief negotiator, she would go to Brussels and ask for mercy, which meant leaving the issue to be determined at a later point. And the EU would always make it even harder for Britain to break away without permanent costs. Informed opinion held that May was the worst negotiator yet known in the field of public diplomacy.

The flashpoint came in July 2018, when May summoned her Cabinet to Chequers, where she presented them with her Withdrawal Agreement. This turned out to be a total capitulation to the EU, and an end to British autonomy. Some ministers protested violently, and were told that if they did not sign up they could find their own way home from Chequers (which is in the country). Under duress, they signed, but over the weekend David Davis, the chief Brexit minister, resigned, as did Boris Johnson, the Foreign Minister. Numerous other resignations were to follow. When Parliament resumed in the autumn, it decisively rejected the Withdrawal Agreement, again and again, leaving the question in a limbo from which it has yet to emerge. Natural historians versed in the life-cycle of the dodo like to compare it with May’s Withdrawal Agreement. 

How did this ridiculous state of affairs come about? Quite considerably, because the Conservative Party in Westminster let the Prime Minister get away with it. Westminster Tories are largely Remainers, while the party membership is strongly Leave. As I pointed out in Chronicles (July 2018), she relied on the keystone-and-arch policy. The opposed pressures of the shoulder-wedges keep the keystone in place, at the top. Charles Moore wrote (Daily Telegraph, 6 July 2019): “Theresa May’s Cabinet provided an almost perfect model of how not to do these things—reluctantly accept a task and then appoint a pile of people who do  not want to carry it out.” A true cynic would observe that her policy was actually a perfect model, if the aim is staying in office. The unillusioned and well-informed Camilla Tominey, of the Telegraph, wrote “The perks of power, not principles, keep her hanging on” (24 May 2019). And indeed the charms of weekending in Chequers cannot be overstated. Theresa May stayed in office even after a vote of confidence was called on her party leadership in December 2018.  She survived it, with 200 MPs voting for her. The suave Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the rebel contingent, pointed out that 163 of those 200 were on the Government payroll. That was the secret of her unmerited longevity: the party in Westminster feared for their livelihoods should the Prime Minister be deposed, to be replaced by a less well-disposed leader. The entire governing class, confronted with the threat of change, formed a coalition of the unwilling. 

Fear decided the question. May’s reputation, meagre as it was, crashed when the target for leaving the EU, March 29th, was publicly abandoned a few days before the fatal date. That was a failure not only of the Prime Minister but also for the Party at large, which faced an unending series of electoral defeats by an enraged population.  In the local elections of May 2, the Conservatives were brutally hammered. Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party then came on to the scene, reviving the UKIP threat. Later in the same month Britain was condemned to take part in the EU elections, in which the Conservatives were catastrophically reduced to 5th place in the national standings with 8.8%. The Prime Minister had to go, and a deputation of Conservative MPs told her the score.  She announced her resignation with these telling words: “I offered to give up the job I love earlier than I would like.” “Offered”? In a final interview, she went on to supply her own epitaph: being Prime Minister was not about power but service. “Service” was her code for failure.

May’s successor is not in doubt. Boris Johnson stands in the wings, making dispositions and reconnoitring prospects in due secrecy. He will soon fly to Washington and establish amity with President Trump. The waters close over the head of Theresa May, and passers-by ignore her drowning cries. Her pleas for a “legacy” lead nowhere, since legacies need money and nobody will sign a promissory note. Her chief advisor Olly Robbins has already resigned, taking off for fresh woods from which he will emerge into pastures new. There will be no party of May, no lost leader to mourn. She was the worst Prime Minister in British history, and revisionists will not make their name questioning that judgment. Historians like to be on the right side of history. It is their future. 

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