Thursday 28 March. Well, it looks as if she will be going soon, although she has an odd way of going about it: ‘back my Brexit deal or I stay’. Still, it seems inevitable. Within a few weeks, or even days, she’ll be gone. It will have been a humiliating fall. Enoch Powell once said that all political careers end in failure; but this is something else.
One wonders how she is going to feel, waking up in bed the day after her ousting, with no-one close to comfort her: no children, few friends, apparently, and only that garden-rake of a financier husband by her side; only to be told by nearly everyone that she has been ‘the worst prime minister in British history’ (Polly Toynbee in today’s Guardian), and the one who is mainly to blame (together with David Cameron) for the awful mess we’re in just now.
There may be some sympathy for her. Firstly, on the grounds that she’s a woman, and therefore – it’s assumed – a victim of the prejudice and hardship that has been the fate of all women in recent times. And secondly, on the grounds that she was ‘dealt a poor hand’.
Managing Brexit was certainly that. The expectations of the victorious Brexiteers were always chimerical – the common word for them nowadays is ‘unicorns’ – and the Brexiteers themselves were deeply divided over what those expectations had been in any case. The ‘ultras’ of the ERG (European Research Group) were especially assertive and uncompromising, demanding the severing of all the ties that formally bound Britain to the Continent, so that they could float the country off to become either a profitable off-shore tax haven (Rees-Mogg), or else to start building a great new empire of the kind Boris Johnson had been taught about, we presume, at Eton.
The ‘woman’ thing, however, doesn’t work. Her gender doesn’t seem to have particularly disadvantaged her career-wise, in the wake of Thatcher; and the only way I can think of that it might have affected her – as it did with Thatcher – was in encouraging her to become less conventionally feminine – ‘grow some balls’ – in order to be able to compete with the dominant males in her tribe. That might help explain her stint at the Home Office, where she fashioned herself into the cruellest Secretary of State in modern times. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2018/05/31/our-unhomely-office/.)
Then came her premiership: somewhat accidentally, although she had apparently hankered after it for years. That was when all her other failings came to the fore: again, none of them gender-related, but decidedly personal. She didn’t truly believe in her cause – at the time of the referendum she had supported the Remain side – which may have been one reason for her obduracy: in order to persuade the genuine Brexiteers that she really was one of them. She wouldn’t listen. She triggered Article 50 before she needed to. She called an unnecessary General Election, and lost it. She was a terrible negotiator, in just about every circumstance, foreign and domestic. By all accounts she has no social skills at all: see this recent excoriating verdict, based on personal experience, in the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/29/opinion/theresa-may.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article. She never tried to reach out to the Europeans, or to the 48% of ‘Remainers’ at home, being mainly concerned to appease her ultras in the Conservative party. Her speeches and statements were dire: repetitive, nonsensical, ‘robotic’. (Hence her unkind nickname: the Maybot.) The public one she gave on TV about a week ago – blaming ‘Parliament’ for everything, and so further stirring the hostility to politicians that the populist press had been preparing for months – was shockingly ill-judged, and even dangerous. (Attacks on MPs peaked afterwards.) She lacked imagination, depth and empathy; even, I would say, intelligence, beyond what was required to gain her an Oxford Geography degree. OK, the premiership was a poisoned chalice; but others could undoubtedly have done better with it, and she still deserves much of the blame for taking on a job she should have known she was unfitted for. It was a clear case of nemesis following hubris. Serve her right.
Whether the tragedy of the last few days – and years – can be adequately explained in terms of her personal failings, however, is highly doubtful. Martin Kettle in today’s Guardian avers that May’s mishandling of Brexit ‘is a reminder of the extent to which individuals matter in history’, but then goes on list some of the other more impersonal and important factors lurking behind. I hope to come back to these in a later post.
For the present, this one is being written in a plane (a rather bumpy one: I hope it’s not one of those Boeing 737 Max’s) taking me from the toe-curling embarrassment of the British political scene, to the altogether calmer and more rational environment of Sweden. I may not be able to post it from up here: Norwegian Air’s wi-fi is not all it’s cracked up to be; in which case I’ll send it from Sweden, after I’ve landed. (Or crashed, it it’s a Max.) Maybe tomorrow morning, after a sleep which I hope will be less troubled than Theresa’s. I’ve not helped bugger up the country, after all.
(Friday, 4 p.m. CET.) We didn’t crash, so here it is. May’s deal (or part of it) has just been defeated in the Commons at the third time of asking. So, according to the promise she made, she should be carrying on. That’s unlikely to help.