Recent Tory leaders have put the interests of their party ahead of the country but, as ALASTAIR CAMPBELL argues, Theresa May is putting her personal interests ahead of both.
The actor Andy Serkis, aka Gollum of Lord of the Rings fame, made a rather brutal but brilliant video last week. When I first saw it, I almost winced. Actually delete ‘almost’ – I winced. If you haven’t seen it, you should.
Set in what looks remarkably like one of the Downing Street studies, Serkis’ Gollum becomes Gollum’s Theresa May, lovingly stroking her cherished Brexit deal.
MORE: Subscribe to The New European for 26 weeks at just £30 – save £75!She trots out the tired mantras about it to a nation tired of hearing them and now believed by nobody but her; she vows to fight off any and all opponents of it; railing at tricksy Remainers who are trying to thwart her and, even worse, ‘people’ who might be tempted by a People’s Vote.
When Gollum switches to her nicer alter ego, Sméagol, who is telling her people hate the deal, and should have a say on her masterpiece, the spittle firing from her mouth in anger as she returns to being Gollum is peak wince. Brutal. But brilliant.
It won’t surprise you to know Serkis is passionately anti-Brexit. So is the film’s writer, Dominic Minghella and director Mark Lucas. I have worked with Mark’s Silverfish film company for decades, not least on some of the election broadcasts that helped Labour win our first landslide back in the days when we had an opposition that went for the jugular when the Tories were in trouble, leading to a strong and stable government and a politics that was not a global laughing stock. Feels like centuries not decades ago now.
Mark and I share near identical politics and we have worked together so often and so long it is rare that he does something and I go ‘oh my Lord … are you sure?’ First time I watched the Serkis film, I loved it, laughed at it, thought it made an important point brilliantly, powerfully. Then I watched it again, and wondered if the brutality went too far. I asked friends and family to take a look. Most stayed with brilliant. Some felt too brutal. (Though it turned out to be no more brutal than her own MPs, who forced a no-confidence vote.)
One thing is for sure, the video cut through. Within 48 hours, Mark told me, the original video alone had hit well over three million views online, and reached at least five million people through shares. Tweets from Serkis himself and Stephen Fry added a few more million. Media outlets internationally have been clamouring to use the video, and articles and posts have soared onto millions of screens in virtually every corner of the globe.
That it is a cruel portrayal is beyond doubt. Gollum is a bit of a monster and so it follows that if Gollum becomes Theresa May she inherits monster qualities. And I guess the thing that made me wince was the sense you pick up around the place that a lot of people, however they might have voted in the referendum or an election, feel sympathy for her.
But when I saw her stand up in the House of Commons on Monday, in what was surely the most humiliating prime ministerial parliamentary appearance of our lifetime, any shred of sympathy I might ever have had for her because of the dreadful hand David Cameron bequeathed her, and the onerous responsibilities and workload she endures, evaporated. Her inner Gollum was in control. It was awful. Serkis is onto something about the nature of her character.
She talks about the national interest an awful lot. But what is now coming through is that this really is all about her. It’s my deal, and I will have it. It’s my ball and nobody else gets to play with it. And if it looks like there is no way I can win, I am going to take it into the corner of the pitch down by the flag and just stop anyone else getting the ball from me. If I can’t win you had better believe me when I say nobody else is going to. And if the pound takes a tumble, if government descends into chaos, and the Mother of Parliamentary democracies descends into farce, then so be it. It is a price worth paying for me to keep my deal and my premiership alive, and be allowed to carry on sleeping in the main Downing Street bedroom.
The debate in recent weeks has been narrowing to no Brexit or hard Brexit (which is not the same as no-deal). May has been seeking to reframe it to her deal against no-deal. It is as irresponsible as it is selfish. And in seeking simply to run down the clock and grind her MPs into some kind of weird submission as the cliff edge nears, while Jeremy Corbyn takes a different ball into a different corner of the pitch in the hope that he doesn’t have to make a decision, she has moved perilously close to ‘unfit for the office’ territory.
MORE: May gets unexpected response from Commons on delivering BrexitI used to think May was driven by a profound sense of duty. But I am afraid I am reaching the view that she has developed a deeper sense of entitlement. The woman who was irritated in her twenties that Margaret Thatcher beat her into the history books as our first female prime minister thinks she belongs in No.10, leading her party, running the country. Only she isn’t running the country. Nobody is. She isn’t running her party. It is disintegrating into a rabble of mutually hating factions.
She has lost control. For a control freak, that must be a truly horrible feeling. Tough. She brought it on herself. It would be nice to think that politics and personality could be separated. But they can’t. The personal character of a leader is important. And the more intense the spotlight and the scrutiny the more evident the character becomes. When I see her, I am reminded of the kind of things her cabinet colleagues have said about her down the years. Secretive. Controlling. Stubborn. Unempathetic. Not a good listener. Lacking in the personal skills required to put people at ease, bring them into your confidence, build teams and alliances.
Some or all of those characteristics have been on display at virtually every misstep of this wretched process that has got us to the awful place where we are now. The red lines that were laid down without her senior ministers being aware or involved.
Triggering Article 50 prematurely without a plan. The election that was never going to happen, and then it did, and she lost the majority Cameron had won. Her idea. Only her idea. One minute, it was absolutely the wrong thing to do, the next minute absolutely the right thing to do. Both argued with the same Gollum-esque conviction.
So she has been on her ludicrous nationwide tour to hammer home the message this is the only deal available and then, when she finally got the message that she was facing the biggest Commons defeat of modern or indeed ancient times, there was suddenly a better deal available and she was the only woman alive who could get it.
Only she can’t. She does not have the reputational or personal capital in the bank with EU leaders to win anything other than tweaks and twiddles. And she lacks personal and political capital in the bank with her MPs to be able to move them without the fundamental changes that the EU will not and cannot grant. And never forget why. Because she laid down red lines which, combined with the realities of the Good Friday Agreement (delivered by governments – Tory and Labour – that knew how to negotiate), left the EU with no choice but to deliver the kind of deal they have.
She talks to her fellow leaders like she talks to her colleagues and like she talks to you and me when she is on the television. Patronisingly. De haut en bas. Like there is only one version of truth and it is whatever she believes it to be at that time.
One of her fellow heads of government told me that at the Salzburg summit – one of the major misstep scenes – where she had done next to no real preparation for how her ‘plan’ at that time would land with her colleagues, she used her allotted slot to read out the contents of an article she had written in a German newspaper that morning. He said he sometimes wondered why she is in politics ‘because she doesn’t seem to like people, or know how to engage with them’.
The lack of warmth towards her, from leaders and MPs alike, is a direct reflection of the lack of warmth and understanding she shows, and has shown throughout her career, to others. Virtually every Tory MP you meet has a story to tell of her coldness or her dismissal of their views. Those slights have now come back to haunt her, in the calling of the no-confidence vote.
I suppose there is inevitably a part of any leader who at times will equate their own interest and future with that of the nation. And of course the authority and survival of a nation’s leader is an important factor in any country’s strength. But what recent days have shown is not just that the interests of the Tory party are being put ahead of the national interest, as they have been on Europe for years, but that to May, her own personal interests are now more important to her than both.
Memo to Andy Serkis… you were too kind.