28 March 2019

What Theresa May got wrong


It is hard to remember it now but once upon a time Theresa May had a vision for the United Kingdom. It was a vision to which Brexit was, if not incidental, then by no means central. May’s ministry would, she said in the summer of 2016, “fight against the burning injustices” that still, even now, held too many people back, thwarted too many opportunities, made Britain a lesser country than it could, and should, be. The Tory party, being the natural party of government must be a One Nation party and its mission was to build “a country that works for everyone”. That meant dismantling — no, smashing — barriers based on class, race, and gender. Modernisation, yes, but modernisation with a distinct, moral, edge.

That, in retrospect, was the zenith of May’s term in office. The final date for her departure has not yet been confirmed; one way or another it is arriving soon. She leaves office a broken politician, wrecked by the fatal combination of Brexit and her own shortcomings. It turned out you could neither move beyond Brexit, nor use it as the catalyst for a whole-spectrum transformation of British political life and society. Brexit has ruined Mrs May, just as Europe has heavily contributed to the downfall of each of the last four Conservative premiers.

But she did not help herself. Political strengths easily become fatal weaknesses. So determination is transformed into stubbornness, principle into dogma, attention to detail into a terminal lack of vision and so on. So it has proved with Theresa May. The very qualities that made her an appealing successor, indeed counterpart, to David Cameron have helped sink her.

Because Brexit has become a fiasco, it is tempting to suppose it always had to end — though of course it has not yet ended — like this. That’s the power of hindsight bias. But it did not have to be like this and there are always roads not taken that could have led to different kinds of destination. Or, at least, allowed for a more comfortable journey.

Brexit was a home-cooked matter, the meaning of which was, in reality, decided by just two people: Theresa May and Nick Timothy. They drew the red lines, principally on freedom of movement, that would eventually catch the Prime Minister in a trap of her own making and from which there was no escape. If that was one blunder, it was at least a plausible interpretation of the meaning of Brexit.

Even so, it was not inevitable that Britain would become so thoroughly split between Remainers and Leavers. The Prime Minister’s dreadfully misjudged speech at her first Tory conference as party leader helped ensure there’d be little chance of any “healing process”. You were with us or you were against us, the Prime Minister said. Being a “citizen of the world” — an absurd caricature of Remain voters but also a deliberately insulting one — meant being “a citizen of nowhere”. At a stroke, Mrs May — notionally a reluctant Remainer herself — severed ties with the 48 per cent of voters who had opted for the comfort, and stability, of the status quo.

Brexit would henceforth be decided inside the Conservative Party, not amongst the country as a whole. The country would have to live with what it was given. At that moment, the opportunity for a more consensus-driven Brexit perished. It would be May’s way or no way.

Remainers were given no chance of having a stake in Brexit; the idea this could be a national project was dismissed as being of no importance. It was not necessary because Theresa May was going to change British politics and be in power for a decade. Hubris, always hubris. It gets them all in the end, though rarely so swiftly as was Theresa May’s fate.

The red lines, meanwhile, were fundamentally irreconcilable. The Northern Irish question ensured that. Britain wanted everything to change while maintaining a measure of continuity where it wanted that to be the case. Cakeism proved fatally attractive.

All this was compounded by the 2017 general election that made May a ward of the DUP and the newly-emboldened ERG. Had she won the victory she — and, to be fair, all commentators — expected then the shape of Brexit would look very different today. Had she been returned with a majority of 100 MPs — or even 70 — she would have had an opportunity to impose her view of Brexit, confident enough Tory MPs would accept there was no great alternative to it.

But the election, which seemed such a good idea at the time, proved a disaster. Brexit was only a part of this, though a significant one. The Tories made themselves the party of Brexit, piling up votes in safe Leave-voting constituencies but losing more equivocal swing seats where a vote for Labour seemed less an endorsement of Jeremy Corbyn than a protest against an arrogant and overbearing Conservative party.

That owed something to Theresa May’s political shortcomings. The Tory manifesto was a worthy, even morally serious, document. Too much so for its own good, in fact. The so-called “dementia tax” was an attempt to answer an important, and growing, problem but doing so in the midst of a snap general election was the worst possible place and time to provide that answer. Only a supremely over-confident government, sure of both victory and its own virtue, could behave like this.

Losing her majority meant losing control and without control Theresa May amounts to not very much at all. Brexit has ruined her but was given a significant assist by her own miscalculations, personal shortcomings, and lack of imagination. Plodding along is not enough and nor is stickability. Not when the country evidently craves something more than that.

In the end, if you aspire to being a One Nation prime minister you must behave and lead in that manner. Theresa May’s great failure was to treat Brexit as a matter in which only 52 per cent of voters were invested. She talked the talk of One Nation Toryism only to abandon it as soon as she was tasked with walking that walk on the greatest issue of the moment. That, above all, is both the beginning and the end of her ministry.

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Alex Massie is a political commentator.