The charge sheet against May

Matthew d'Ancona

Matthew d'Ancona says that Theresa May is a major cause of the crises facing her party and country

29 September 2018 08:52

Theresa May is still the problem. She is both a prime cause of the Conservative Party’s present crisis, and the incarnation of that same predicament.

The panic you will see in the eyes of the Tories at Birmingham – and the lengths to which they will go to conceal that terror – are intimately connected with the preposterous fact of her survival as Prime Minister. It is all of a piece.

Since last year’s election, it has become close-to-fashionable to portray May as somehow admirable in her tenacity, a figure of unflashy dignity at the heart of the madness, winged but not quite finished.

But this only shows how amazingly hypocritical and patronising the media-political class can be when it is running out of new things to broadcast. What, for God’s sake, is the condition of Britain, when the best thing anyone can say about its Prime Minister is that she is not embarrassed to dance badly on overseas trips?

Theresa May dancing on a trip to Africa

Look at the charge sheet: May – the ‘submarine’ who rarely surfaced to campaign for Remain in the EU referendum – was at least partly responsible for the victory of Leave, and the fall of David Cameron. Once installed as his successor, she sought much too hastily to rebrand herself as the authentic voice of the cause which she had notionally opposed until the vote on 23 June 2016.

She declared, with bovine circularity, that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, and triggered Article 50 – the treaty clause governing the departure process – without a serious plan in place. We are now reaping the barren harvest that she sowed in the first months of her premiership.

Last June, she gambled it all in a bid to secure a hefty Commons majority that would translate into a strong personal mandate – and, crucially, maximum room to manoeuvre in her negotiations with Brussels.

It wasn’t the stupidest idea a Prime Minister ever came up with. But the campaign she fought was certainly in the top ten: it was awful from start to finish, with the result that a Tory manifesto that included a fair crop of decent ideas was completely eclipsed by her cosmically poor performance on the stump and in interviews. Deservedly, she lost the majority that Cameron had won only two years before, and, inadvertently, became midwife to the cult of Jeremy Corbyn – a cult that was still very much alive and well at Labour’s conference in Liverpool last week.

We are now reaping the barren harvest that she sowed in the first months of her premiership.

The gamble having failed so spectacularly, she should have announced a timetable for resignation and a leadership race on the morning of 9 June. That was the moment to display grace under pressure. Instead, she clung on to office like a barnacle – without honour or purpose. The Tory who had once had the guts to warn her fellow Conservatives that they were perceived as the ‘nasty party’ forged a pact with an even nastier one – the Democratic Unionists – and did so with £1bn of taxpayers’ money. Fiscal discipline, it seems, has its limits when the Conservative Party’s grip on power is in jeopardy.

It is impossible to understand the present shambles masquerading as HMG without reference to this epic failure of statesmanship 16 months ago. Held together by nothing more than cash, ambition and fear, our zombie government has been conspicuously incapable of doing more than stay – just about – in office.

It lacks the will, authority and competence to run the country effectively, let alone reform its public services, address the pathologies and inequities of globalisation, or prepare meaningfully for the juggernaut of automation careering towards us all on the technological highway. All of this has happened on May’s watch.

And Brexit? Little more than a fortnight from now, May is scheduled to present Britain’s proposal for a full and final deal with its 27 soon-to-be-ex partners. Patently, that is not going to happen – and, again, it is May’s fault that this is so.

True, this particular crime story resembles Murder on the Orient Express: all the suspects are guilty. Boris Johnson, David Davis, Michael Gove and Liam Fox all have to explain why they told us it would all be so straightforward when it was never going to be anything of the kind. Jeremy Hunt and others are now arguing for a Canada-style free trade agreement as an alternative to the dead Chequers deal: but the problems inherent to such a proposal, especially the question of the Irish border, are immense, and cannot possibly be resolved in the days remaining till the Brussels summit.

This particular crime story resembles 'Murder on the Orient Express': all the suspects are guilty.

Most disgracefully of all, the task is all too often framed as a great game: a poker night with Brussels, in which only the most cunning will prevail; another daring bet at the casino table to make up for the losses suffered in last year’s election. But it is not a game. Brexit is about people, and jobs, and the future of the young, and the position of Britain in the world.

The stakes are as high as anything the nation has experienced since the Second World War. What is decided in the months ahead will have thunderous implications for generations to come. It soars above party politics, above the trivia of what King Lear whimsically calls ‘court news…. Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out’.

None of that will matter remotely if the economy tanks, or the NHS can’t maintain its supply chains of medicine and blood, or a national food plan becomes necessary. Try using Deliveroo or Amazon then. Try accessing all the services you’ve taken for granted for so long.

Even now, six months before we are scheduled to leave the EU, ask how ‘taking back control’ is working out for you so far. And if anyone tells you that such anxieties are just another manifestation of ‘Project Fear’, remind them that lemmings would live a lot longer if they felt a healthy surge of fear at the right moment.

The stakes are as high as anything the nation has experienced since the Second World War.

All senior Tories know this: they know, too, that May’s exhausted leadership is the worst possible basis for what is notionally (but will not be) the final lap of negotiations. Yet their fear of a leadership contest that Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg might win, or a general election that the party could easily lose, has trumped their sense of patriotism at every turn. They know that they are offering the electorate a woefully sub-standard service. But old Tory habits – confusing inertia for stability – have reasserted themselves. When change is most desperately needed, the party is locked in pathetic stasis. It pretends to swim to shore, even as it struggles to tread water, not waving but drowning.

In Birmingham, you will hear that the Tories have restored their battered morale after the horrible year of 2017 (not so). You will be told that a Corbyn government would be a throw of the dice the country can ill afford (true). You will be assured that the Conservatives have a magnificent plan for the ‘broad, sunlit uplands’ that lie beyond 29 March 2019 (fake news). You may even think that May cuts an impressively stoic figure amid all the leadership speculation and Boris-mania (a matter of opinion). And if she gets through her speech next week without a coughing fit or a prank like the P45 handed to her last year – well, her performance might well be hailed by the desperate, the incurious and the contrarian as some sort of triumph.

None of it will make the slightest difference. Britain stands on the verge of a huge and – in practice – irrevocable leap into the unknown. It has been brought to the precipice by a Prime Minister who persuaded herself, in a flush of magical thinking, that her own survival was best for the country.

Whatever happens at this conference, history will not be kind to her, and rightly so. Theresa May is still the problem.

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