We have reached the endgame for both Britain and Theresa May. Caught between Brexit hardliners and the Tory voting electorate on one side and Remain Ultras on the other, whatever she does seems to guarantee a serious constitutional crisis through either reneging on Brexit or defeat in Parliament. Moreover, if we don’t confront the EU now, there will no time to prepare for exit on WTO terms. Once that deadline has passed, national humiliation of our country will be sealed as the EU wrings concession after concession.
Oh, how we pine for Margaret Thatcher in this situation! – not that she would ever have allowed herself to get into it in the first place. The comparison with our hapless Prime Middle Manager is almost too painful to make. As one below-the-line commentator put it when preliminary negotiations were under way, if Barnier had tried it on with a £40bn payment demand, Thatcher would have walked out with a £50bn rebate and his b***s as a keychain. Moreover she would, unquestionably, have seized the initiative on Brexit from the very beginning, prepared aggressively for WTO rules from day one and stared the EU down.
Mrs T was, of course, a woman in what was still very much a man’s world, and no doubt had to learn early on to mix it with the best of them. And boy, did she. She was, as Ronald Reagan famously described her, ‘the best man in England’. That said, it’s far too simplistic to say that Thatcher was simply an honorary man, macho in macho times: history tends greatly to underplay her feminine side, and there is a strong argument that what made her so effective a leader was the right blend of both masculine and feminine qualities. She had masculine qualities of risk-taking courage, single-mindedness, singular vision and the ability to engage in highly confrontational situations when necessary. However, she was also capable of cautious pragmatism. The risks she took were calculated, and at least until the final years of her reign she never let wounded pride stop her making tactical withdrawals when necessary in the way that her successor John Major did.
May, in contrast, is the classic careerist type: someone who all her life wanted to be something rather than to do something, and finding when she finally gets there that she lacks the vision necessary for leadership. That is her personal tragedy: it is also Britain’s.
Very often such mediocre people lack self-awareness. They also tend to lack moral courage. Getting to the top is everything, so life becomes a dreary zero-sum game. Responsibility for difficult decisions is shirked if possible and vengeance taken on anyone who stands in their way – hence May’s despicable behaviour during the EU Referendum and her reputation for personal vindictiveness. Bullies are always cowards, and May is undoubtedly one of those: ducking and putting off the difficult decisions from day one, she has thrown away a strong hand and manoeuvred herself, her party and her country into an almost impossible position. The only way out seems to be under a new leader who believes in Brexit with a stronger electoral mandate and who is prepared to go to WTO rules. Someone, metaphorically and perhaps literally, possessing the grandes cojones the hour clearly requires.
Our current leader can clearly never be that person. She must go – now.
To adapt the investors’ adage, it is time to Sell the May and walk away.