It’s been six months since the giddy days that saw the country vote for what had meant to be the impossible. David Cameron resigned off the back of a gargantuan political miscalculation that saw the said impossible become his worst nightmare. Following the coronation of a new Prime Minister with no popular mandate, it may be an opportune time to consider Theresa May’s half-term school report.
With the benefit of a hindsight that is always 20/20 in clarity, Mrs May’s unopposed anointment to the top job should always have been a formality. Leaving aside her own credentials of six steady and competent years supping from the poison chalice of politics as the Home Secretary, consider her competitors for the job in ascending order of embarrassing unsuitability: Stephen Crabb, a crackin’ little boyo-done-good Welsh fella, with the kindly demeanour and boyish looks that suggested his slightly mangy beard was sprouted to convince himself and others that two years of ministerial experience was sufficient to contest the election, let alone win it; Michael Gove, a duplicitous and rather odious character whose knife wielding skills on a comrade’s unsuspecting back would have made Brutus proud and whose statesmanship would lie somewhere between Harry Enfield’s Tory Boy and Charlie McCarthy; Liam Fox, surely one of the standard bearers in the pantheon of heroically underwhelming and competently beige politicians that the UK seems to have specialised in excreting over the past 20 years and; last and by all means least, Andrea…who? Oh yes, Leadsom, lest I forget. Except that I did. Mrs Leadsom displayed all the depth, political credibility and clarity of purpose of a muddy puddle. To see her in action as a potential future First Lord of the Treasury was excruciating, although the feminists who all banged their drum and burnt their bras in unison at the spectacle of an all-woman scrap to the top would no doubt disagree (why let meritocracy get in the way of “a victory for women the world over”?). Aptly, she is now in charge of silage and vermin culling at Rural Affairs. Mrs May was the consummate safe pair of hands, universally respected.
Six months on from her bloodless coup thanks to Mrs Leadsom putting us all out of our misery by falling on her sword, what more do we know about Mrs May and how has she performed?
Well, there are one or two well-seasoned titbits that may shed some light but without ever getting to the core of what she stands for. She gets very touchy about comments on her sartorial elegance. Miaow. She likes to say “Brexit means Brexit” a lot; a meaningless, yet masterfully malleable, catch-all banality that enables her and her ministers to hide behind a thick fog of policy inertia, born out of the reality that nobody has a Scooby Doo on how best to execute the unprecedented. She has made ominously interventionist and anti-business remarks. She likes to publicly scold those ministers who utter anything that might be construed as “off message” (Boris has bent over, touched his toes and taken an absolute beating of late). She likes to pick fights with taxpayer funded consultants like Deloitte who have had to withdraw from tendering for lucrative future government work in an attempt to heal a rift with No.10 after a leaked memo deigned to suggest that the cabinet was riven by splits and had no credible Brexit plan. Cabinet splits?! Surely not! Doth the lady protest too much? And after the resignation last week of Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s former ambassador to the EU, Mrs May seems to be operating in a vacuum of inconvenient truths after his incendiary resignation letter pointed to “ill-founded arguments” and “muddled thinking” in Whitehall. Challenge Mrs May at your peril.
After the sofa politics of “call me Tony” Blair and the inner sanctum cabal politics of “call me Dave” Cameron, Mrs May is overseeing a marked shift in statecraft which appears to have reasserted the authority of Cabinet through the notion of “on message” collective responsibility. Yet her sometimes brutal public admonishments of her ministers for seemingly going rogue (David Davis her Brexit minister has also been holding Bojo’s sweaty palm on the naughty step), belies an authoritarian control freakery and micro-management that can only neuter ministerial authority. This is dangerous and Mrs May would do well to heed the lessons of the not too distant past. There is more than the whiff of cordite in the air that Mrs May is modelling her leadership style in the mould of Margaret Thatcher and aspires to be the Iron Lady 2. Echoes resonate of the same paranoia and relentless ministerial bashing encapsulated by the infamous “is he one of us?” political castrations that Thatcher routinely meted out to the off-message “wets” in the 1980s. But it was those same political eunuchs that delivered Thatcher’s reckoning after 11 years in charge; May is only six months into the job yet she appears to be employing the same MO that decapitated her predecessor. Intransigence and authoritarianism are not the same as leadership and it is dispiriting to observe such an experienced campaigner confuse the notions.
Machiavelli’s The Prince is probably the most notorious treatise on the dark arts of leadership and wielding and holding on to political power. Machiavelli may well have approved of the lioness ferocity in which Mrs May has savaged her political opponents to date (Jezza is but a poor, wee irrelevant lamb, bless him). Take BoJo. I have no doubt that as just about every UK and European eyebrow arched to the point of cranial cramp upon his appointment as Foreign Secretary (acronymed in PMQs before Christmas as “FFS” or “Fine Foreign Secretary”. Text speak would betray a clearer view of her personal opinion), the new PM was providing her enemy with enough rope to hang himself in the alien arena of international diplomacy. I now get the feeling that, having provided the rope, she is now tying the noose and providing the stool to kick over with a pair of sharpened Rosa Klebb heels. George Osborne, Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan were all sent to political Coventry as unwanted detritus from the previous regime. But what of her vixen like cunning as the second pillar of Machiavelli’s advice? Here she seems to be profoundly lacking. Whether or not the perceived inertia on the Government’s strategy behind Brexit belies a cunning plan that will deliver the UK to the Promised Land of idealism and unlimited cake eating where the permanent ban of free movement of people to the UK sits happily alongside free and unfettered access to Europe’s Single Market remains to be seen (well, we were promised this by Leavers were we not?). And the government’s stuck record drones on that it has a plan. But as plans go, the current evidence suggests that Baldrick could be the author.
The referendum delivered two unequivocal messages: firstly, that a majority of the population wanted to leave the EU and; secondly, that at 52% v 48% the country is hopelessly divided on the subject as vocalised by the white heat of the debate over what Brexit actually means. “Brexit means Brexit” cannily articulates both messages perfectly. The UK will leave the EU, but whether your chosen form of Brexit is hard or soft, tumescent or flaccid, salty or sweet, Mrs May has to deliver porridge that is just right. But some of the noises coming from Number 10, and the hardened counterpunches coming from Europe, suggest that Mrs May is far removed from the necessity to assert hard realism over fanciful idealism.
For the reality and realism of the situation seems quite clear: leaving aside the hard core axis of Leavers-Remainers who are likely to be always disappointed, the PM is likely to deliver a Brexit package that will leave c.50% of the country happyish and the other c.50% unhappyish. Whether her December proclamations of a Brexit that is “red, white and blue” signals a softening of a hitherto antagonistic approach to her European counterparts, Mrs May needs to start displaying some pragmatism. Whatever sense of the UK’s inflated importance, propagandist and, frankly, delusional bollocks we have been pedalled by various figures about trade deficits and German car manufacturers pulling Angela Merkel’s strings, the political primacy of the European project and its future integrity will hold sway over trade and economics. Michel Barnier, chief divorce negotiator for the EU, and any number of EU leaders have made this crystal clear. The vested and enmeshed interests of the remaining 27 countries to hold the bloc together will always trump the self-serving interests of the recalcitrant 1. And the requirement for any Brexit deal to be ratified unanimously by all 27 sovereign member parliaments, as well as the European Parliament, ensures that Europe is calling the shots. Do the math Theresa. It is surely self-evident that the UK will not be given a better deal for leaving the EU and we will be punished “pour encourager les autres”. The UK is not in the position of strength that the post-truth methodology has crystallised in many peoples’ minds. Fight the UK’s corner Mrs May, but please get real.
“It is far safer to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.” The PM may be feared (for now) in her own party and she may yet be loved (by the centre right at least) if she can deliver a landslide victory for the Tories at the 2020 election, but in Europe I doubt that 27 v 1 inspires much fear and she certainly isn’t loved. When Thatcher’s fear factor cultivated and emboldened her enemies, she quickly realised that rapidly shifting political sands had left her with insufficient love. The sooner Mrs May recognises this and starts displaying the kind of pragmatic leadership that the political reality demands, the better.
The half-term grade? C+. Theresa is a promising student but her prickly and awkward demeanour and evasiveness in class let her down. She seems to have high approval ratings in the wider populace, but does not seem to command any close friendships amongst her immediate peers. If she could eschew delusions of grandeur and engage in a less confrontational and more constructive manner, then she has the potential to fulfil her undeniable talent. Could do better.