THERESA May may well be one of our worst Prime Ministers, if not the worst, but she will leave office with an achievement matched by few of her predecessors. Almost invariably, the verdict of history is kinder to former Prime Ministers than that of the contemporary commentators at the time of their resignation. In the case of May, it is likely to be even harsher.
Both the factual history of her disastrous premiership, and specifically the events of the week leading up to her resignation on Friday, are sufficiently well known not to require repetition here. But to delve deeper – into why they occurred in the way that they did, and then to try to set them in context for a political obituary and wider assessment of her legacy – perhaps needs more of a focus on the personality of May herself.
It’s not as if there haven’t been question marks over her personality and psychological make-up before. As long ago as January 2018, we remarked at TCW on the curious paradox of how her near-total lack of charisma and communication skills combine with an instinctive authoritarianism to produce a taciturn, careerist, managerialist, temperamentally incapable of leadership PM.
And that was six months before the leaks which emerged from the infamous Chequers Summit revealed an overlay of Machiavellian duplicity and mendacity, plus a determination to pursue a soft Brexit very much at variance with the assurances she had been giving since her uncontested coronation.
As the inevitability of her resignation grew during last week, more clues about how May’s psychological make-up governs both her actions and her attitudes started to emerge. In some cases, they were always in the public domain to an extent, but discreetly unmentioned or underplayed. In others they comprised information hitherto known only to comparatively few, but who now felt able to disclose it.
They portrayed a solitary child with few friends, more comfortable with elders than contemporaries, who grew into an adult relying on a small coterie of trusted confidants because of her inability to engage in collegiate fashion with a wider circle – from which she never learned the knack of accepting others’ ideas or acknowledging alternative viewpoints, or its corollary, the art of persuasion and compromise.
What they showed to exacerbate that was the influence of her father’s unbending High-Church Anglicanism, producing a kind of virtuous arrogance, labelled pithily as ‘vicar’s daughter syndrome’, but described more specifically by one acquaintance thus: ‘She has this view of herself, which must be connected to her faith, which is that she has a morality others don’t understand.’
One quote from a ‘senior Tory MP who has known her for decades’ was very revealing: ‘Theresa was annoyed when Margaret Thatcher became [the first female] Prime Minister and beat her to it.’ At the time Thatcher became PM, in May 1979, May was 22 years old.
Now this has been speculated on before, so to see it supported by the remarks of a close acquaintance is interesting. A totally illogical resentment, leading to a determination to pursue a politically opposite path in order to trash as much as possible of Thatcher’s legacy in revenge, could explain quite a lot about May.
Or take another one: ‘She doesn’t have any ideas, so once she’s absorbed her brief she just doggedly decides that that is it.’ In other words, she is supremely manipulable. What an absolute gift to the subtly feline Sir Humphreys of our viscerally anti-Brexit Whitehall she was.
As was more or less confirmed by another quote from the same source: ‘The last cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood was a smart guy, because he realised this was the civil service’s chance to take back control. After 2017, he was instrumental in ensuring David Davis was bypassed and Olly Robbins became her Brexit adviser so the civil service could maintain control of the Brexit process.’
So much of all this backs up long-held reservations. The blank mind susceptible to being filled by others; the apparent deficiency in emotional intelligence; the obsessiveness; the seeming cognitive dissonance highlighted the day after the loss of her majority in her botched 2017 General Election when she delivered a speech in Downing Street which barely acknowledged, if at all, the shattering humiliation she had received.
Much of this was manifested in her resignation speech last Friday.
She waxed lyrical about about the merits of compromise and bemoaned the lack of it among her colleagues, seemingly oblivious to her own actions in refusing to pursue the Brady Amendment to her duplicitous Remain-Lite, Brexit-In-Name-Only, ‘Withdrawal’ Agreement, even after Parliament had voted for it, in insisting that the only alternative to her ‘Withdrawal’ Agreement was No-Brexit, and in attempting to ram it through Parliament not merely three times but even a fourth via abject concessions to Labour to solicit its support.
She claimed to have fought ‘the burning injustices that still scar our society’. Yet she presided unmoved over the Windrush scandal, which represented real, tangible injustice, and by introducing her much self-proclaimed Gender Pay Reporting and Race Disparity Audits at the behest of the grievance-mongering SJW-Left, she contributed to inventing victimhoods where none existed, boosting pernicious, divisive, identity politics.
She was attempting to re-write the history of her own disastrous premiership, augmented by an aura of anguished self-righteousness. Whereas the unvarnished truth is that, presented with an almost unique opportunity to implement the biggest popular mandate in UK political history, she lied, dissembled and deceived to try and dilute it, if not frustrate it completely.
Her legacy will be dire indeed. She leaves not only a country still bitterly divided – which, to try to be fair, it might arguably have been anyway, albeit to a lesser extent – but also a political system in near-chaos, untrusted and despised by increasing numbers of voters, and thus quite incapable of even ameliorating, never mind healing, those divisions.
Despite saying she is ‘the second female Prime Minister but certainly not the last’, she will almost certainly have created the danger that it will be a long time before the ‘Conservative’ Party takes such a risk again, which would be a tragedy, considering the abilities of some of the candidates in its pro-Brexit ranks.
She leaves a party abandoned and rejected by its voters in a virtually unprecedented scale of electoral attrition, as the 2019 EU Elections results revealed on Sunday night (excluding Scotland and Northern Ireland whose late results this chart pre-dated) show. Fifth place in a national election. A mere 9 per cent vote-share. Fifteen out of 18 MEPs gone. The party’s worst result in a national election since 1832, beating even the 1906, 1945 and 1997 landslides.
An electoral attrition potentially repeatable, moreover, in a General Election, with truly calamitous results for it. Though any attempt to read across from an EU to a General Election must obviously be caveated with health-warnings about the comparatively low turnout in the former, the likelihood of different voter-allegiance patterns in the latter, and the different electoral systems – d’Hondt PR vs FPTP – under which they are held, the general trend is there to see. If the 2019 EU election results were replicated in a Westminster General Election, the ‘Conservative’ Party would literally be wiped out. Zero seats. What a legacy for Theresa May.
And this from the Brexit Party, which despite being formally launched only six weeks ago, is surging in Westminster Parliament voting intention as it was in the European equivalent. Why?
Not, as you might think, primarily because of Brexit itself, which she misinterpreted and mishandled so badly, or because of concerns about immigration, which she totally misconstrued. But about the fundamental question of whether we live in a functioning democracy at all.
Democracy is not merely being able to put your cross in a box. It’s being able to put your cross in a box, knowing that if your choice wins, the Government and the legislature will respect it and the losing side will accept it. That millions of people evidently believe this no longer applies in Britain is Theresa May’s most baleful legacy, for which her reputation deserves to sink even lower as the years roll by.