Almost since the moment when she became Prime Minister it has been tempting to mock Theresa May. From her 2016 conference speech, when she seemed to have abandoned her previous support for EU membership and managed the meaningless “Brexit means Brexit”, through vacuous comments on the “will of the people”, to her performances as the “Strong and stable” “Maybot” in the 2017 General Election.
But is this fair? Her disastrous speech speech to the 2017 Conservative Party Conference begins to flag up another side. As it stands, she may well go down in history as the most unfortunate Prime Minister in a very long time. In the long view of history, she may get credit for courage in an impossible situation, and come to be seen as one of the high-profile victims of Brexit.
That conference speech said more than its words. Letters falling off a sign, someone playing a prank, and a nasty cough could be seen as bad luck. But things are rarely as simple as that, and it can be worth asking what is happening unconsciously in the seemingly-accidental.
There probably is someone who watched the letters fall with acute professional embarrassment, but that sort of thing is very rare at party conferences. I doubt that this was deliberate, but did something lead them not to be as careful as usual? Someone gave her a fake P45 “from Boris Johnson”. A prank like that is also possible but rare, and happened to happened at this conference, and got attention rather than shock in the media. It made much more of a splash than the moment at last year’s conference when Boris Johnson was accosted about his referendum lie of £350 million a week for the NHS if we vote to leave the EU. But by any standards, that challenge Johnson was far more justified. And that cough. Ever since Freud wrote up the story of a patient with a persistent cough with no apparent medical cause, psychoanalysts’ ears have pricked up when people develop unexplained coughs.
Theresa May is in an unenviable position. Her time in No10 is marred by her predecessor’s mis-judgement over the referendum. This is not so much that people voted against the side he was on, as it was his gross failure either to plan for a Leave vote (so people had a choice between two credible options), and his failure to recognise the frustrations which were expressed in that vote. It feels as if an attempt to silence his critics by calling their bluff failed. Tragically, many of those who voted Leave stand to suffer from the consequences of Brexit if it actually happens. A wise leader would instead have engaged with their frustrations. A wise politician would have done that in a way that exposed the fantasies on which the Eurosceptics’ case is built and drawn support from people whose “Leave” vote reflected a sense of being ignored. As it stands, the situation May inherited reeks of the national interest coming second to a Tory instinct to hang on to power.
In 2016 Theresa May had no choice over Brexit. It’s not possible to hold a referendum and then ignore it. If she had gone against it, she would have fueled the frustrations and anger of those who voted Leave. Having campaigned to remain in the EU, and being advised by a civil service that is predominantly in favour of EU membership, she must know the damage likely to flow from Brexit. She’s caught in the unenviable position of following a course she must know is against the national interest.
If the 2017 general election had produced a large Conservative majority, she might have faced down the eurosceptics in her own party, but she is now utterly at their mercy. In the Tory leadership contest, I read Angela Leadsom’s withdrawal as the Conservative party’s ruthless quest for power asserting itself, pushing aside a candidate guaranteed to lose a general election in favour of one who might pull of a miracle. But now she is a wounded leader at the head of a bitterly-divided party. Labour under Jeremy Corbyn turned out to be more electable than most thought and his authority has grown as hers has faded. For now, he is in the enviable position of being able to present himself as a man of principle because he’s not in danger of exposing the weakness of his own policies by having to implement them.
Even that ruthless Tory instinct for power is a problem. The Brexit negotiations have been described as the mixing of incompetence with an overwhelming sense of entitlement to power from David Davies, colliding with the professionalism of Michel Barnier and the European institutions. That sense of entitlement to power will need someone to blame when it unravels, and the ruthlessness with which the Conservatives disposed of Margaret Thatcher is a reminder of what may be in store.
No wonder Theresa May had a cough.
Life would have been easier for her if she should have stood aside and let Angel Leadsom become Prime Minister, but if there is anything in then “one nation” conservatism she claimed when she entered No.10, that would have gone against the grain, knowing what damage Leadsom would done on the way to electoral defeat. Perhaps she should face down Boris Johnson, but she can’t do that without creating a natural focus for opposition, able to pedal fantasies about Brexit without risking being exposed when then fail.
And “soft Brexit”, though an attractive idea, doesn’t really exist. It amounts to EU membership without the influence. Early in the year, eurosceptics might have entertained a fantasy of a closer relationship with the USA filling the void left by the EU. But Trump’s behaviour has blown that possibility apart, and the photos of May and Trump from soon after his inauguration now look stomach-churning.
For now, the range of amendments proposed to the EU Withdrawl Bill (trailed as the “Great Repeal Bill”) means, at the very least, its weaknesses will be exposed. She would be very lucky not to lose on some of them. That process alone may be enough to torpedo Brexit, or at least, to remove the possibility of the UK walking away with no deal. May could hope that Parliament will save her the job of stopping it. In reality, the debates are more likely to stop short of that, and instead just highlight the harm in the course she is stuck to.
Recently, Alistair Campbell wrote a piece for the Guardian outlining the speech Theresa May should be preparing to give, to explain the tough decision that Brexit can’t go aheard. The pressure is piling on.
May is in an impossible position. She can’t go forward with Brexit without doing real harm to the economy. She can’t wriggle out of it without inflaming the divisions exposed by the referendum. Campbell’s draft speech is good, but, at the moment, it would need someone of Churchill-like standing to pull it off. The case might get easier to make as Brexit unravels, but I can understand those who voted Leave because life is difficult attributing mounting difficulties to the fact that we’ve not left yet, and jumping the opposite way.
Turning into the “Maybot” under pressure is the opposite of the Churchillian rhetoric that would be needed to explain that it’s a ghastly mess, where people have been lied to, and rally the country behind another solution. Perhaps in the long term, people will conclude that whoever moved into No10 last summer would be destroyed by Brexit and look kindly on her self-sacrifice. In the mean time, we now need to ask what lifeline she needs, and act out of the human decency on which the European project is founded. May is the Prime Minister we have, and there’s a distinct shortage of people who could have the credibility to pull us back from the brink of Brexit. The question for now is those of us who support EU membership can help her steer out of this mess.