When Theresa May entered Downing Street, the country was still smouldering from the referendum. Rather than applying foam, she poured on petrol. LIZ GERARD reports on her disastrous conduct in office
History will not look kindly on Theresa May. The prime minister has built a persona of the gawky school prefect with the best of intentions, doing her duty as a vicar’s daughter should, a woman so brought up on the path of righteousness that the naughtiest thing she can remember doing is running through a field of wheat.
Maybe she forgot that she created a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants, those racist vans that went around housing estates telling people to ‘go home’, urging neighbour to inform on ‘foreign’ neighbour. Maybe she forgot that little fiction about the man whose human rights all came down to having a pet cat.
History will not look kindly on Mrs May. Yes, she’s got an impossible job. But, as the woman in the yellow jacket on Question Time so eloquently put it a couple of weeks back, it’s time we stopped feeling sorry for May.
She is where she is because she wanted to be. She wanted to be prime minister. Nobody dragged her through the door of No.10 like the Commons’ speaker to the chair. She volunteered for it. She wanted it as much as Boris Johnson wants it. She admitted in that cosy television sofa interview about husband Philip putting the bins out that she had had her eyes on Downing Street since she was in Cameron’s shadow cabinet in the early years of the century. So for at least a decade – and possibly two.
And now she’s there, she is trying to emulate the most successful prime minister of the past generation in governing by soundbite. Brexit means Brexit. Strong and stable. Delivering on the will of the people. Except that Tony Blair was able to walk and chew gum. May seems incapable of either.
He prosecuted an ill-advised (many would say illegal) war, but he did manage to run the country at the same time. He recognised that there were domestic policies that also required his attention. May is a one-trick pony and she can’t even get that one right. She has done absolutely nothing during her tenure other than fail to deliver Brexit.
History will not look kindly on Mrs May. When she stood at that lectern on the day she moved into Downing Street, she set out how she would pull the country together – by promising to give 17 million people what they had asked for and effectively telling the rest of the country to suck it up.
Then she appointed a team of charlatans and incompetents to the key jobs and when they proved unequal to their tasks – as they did to a man – she didn’t sack them: they sacked themselves. Because they could see that she was even more hopeless than they were.
History will not look kindly on Mrs May. She said she wouldn’t hold an election to legitimise her position. Then she decided she would. To ‘crush the saboteurs’ and get rid of the Remainer MPs standing in her way. Her big selling point was her ability as a strong leader. But voters could see that she was no more than the designated driver on a charabanc outing, left with the responsibility while everyone in the back of the coach larked about, shouting conflicting instructions on which road to take. It did not turn out well.
History will not look kindly on Mrs May. She spent millions fighting court cases to stop any counter view being heard – first to stop MPs having any say on Brexit, then to discover whether Britain had the right to revoke Article 50. Not to suggest that she do so, simply to find out whether it was possible. She spent our money to stop people finding out what the law was. All that went well, too.
She said MPs would vote on her deal in December and that the vote would not be delayed. She delayed the vote.
But before she did that, she spent more of our money touring the country and placing ads in social media to persuade ‘the people’ that her deal was a good deal. The very people she was adamant should not have another say on that or any other deal.
History will not look kindly on Mrs May. In trying to sell what she insisted was the best possible withdrawal agreement, she emphasised three key advantages. The first was it would mean an end to freedom of movement.
Most regard ‘freedom’ as a good thing, but in her book it is bad. Even, apparently, for British people who would lose just as many rights to live and work where they choose as the Europeans she wants to keep out of the country.
In pandering to the anti-immigration lobby, she neglected to mention that more immigrants come from outside the EU than within it. She neglected to mention that European immigrants make a greater contribution to the British economy than the native population. (They tend to be young, fit workers who pay taxes and don’t need educating or old-age care.)
Meanwhile immigrants from outside Europe, particularly the Commonwealth – whose admission is entirely in the hands of the government – cost us money (which is not to say they don’t enrich society in other ways). But she didn’t mention that. Or dwell on the fact that countries such as India are already demanding that more visas be issued in exchange for a trade deal.
And, most of all, she glossed over the fact that it is possible to restrict immigration even from the EU. It’s just that Britain has chosen not to use the tools at its disposal. And she never, ever acknowledged who had been in charge of immigration policy – including during the Windrush scandal – for the first six years of the Conservative government: one T. May.
The second advantage of her deal was that it would mean an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, a court with a nasty habit of upholding British courts’ rulings on the implementation of British laws, often against the government.
May hates the European Court of Human Rights even more, but that isn’t the same thing at all. It isn’t even linked to the EU. But she doesn’t labour that point. Easier to let people think what they will and not put them right. We can disentangle ourselves from that one another day.
The third advantage was to protect the fishing industry. As an island state, we have a sentimental attachment to anyone with anything to do with the sea – fishermen, lifeboatmen, lighthouse keepers. Nothing wrong with that. But we muddle them up as much as we do our European courts. Grace Darling? Cod wars? Eternal Father Strong to Save? We instinctively know that the fishing industry is important – so important that Nigel Farage and his friends went sailing up the Thames to defend it – but do we know how many people work in that industry? About 12,000, a sixth of them part-timers.
The prime minister is proud that she is protecting the livelihoods of 10,000 full-time workers. Excellent. But what of other industries? What of the 200,000 jobs already lost as a result of Brexit? She listened to the fishing lobby but not to Jaguar Land Rover or to Airbus or the City or creative industries. And she didn’t seem to find anything odd about pro-Brexit campaigner James Dyson moving his ‘British’ business to Singapore.
History will not look kindly on Mrs May. She said she wanted to create a fairer society and – wearing a £1,000 pair of leather trousers – denounced the Remainer ‘elites’ who didn’t understand the privations of the Just About Managings.
Yet she did not notice that the most vocal Brexiteers were millionaires and disaster capitalists who were busy shorting the pound and applying for foreign passports.
She promised to bring the country together, but instead she reinforced its divisions by focusing on the ’17 million’ and refusing to acknowledge, let alone listen to, the other 30 million voters.
Just as she tried to placate 40-odd hardline Tory Brexiteers and a handful of Ulster unionists, while trying to sideline the other 600 MPs – including a majority from her own party, which is now more riven than ever.
History will not look kindly on Mrs May. Not only did she exacerbate the splits within the Conservative party, she also managed to divide the Tory Press. The Sun, the Mail, the Express and the Telegraph sang with one voice before the referendum. Each was as clear as no voter could possibly have been on what Brexit would mean and how it would make Britain great again.
But once May came back from Brussels with her deal, they were not so sure. The Express and Mail stuck with her – always keep ahold of nurse for fear of finding something worse – while the Sun and Telegraph shifted to the hard-line no-deal camp. Meanwhile the Remainer papers were coming round to the idea of a second referendum.
A welcome outbreak of diversity in the media? Up to a point, Lord Copper. May did manage to unite them on one thing: in or out of Europe, none wanted to risk Jeremy Corbyn taking office. And that fear was what kept May in Downing Street long past her sell-by date. When she came to power, the nation was smouldering over the referendum. She could have tried the foam, but opted instead for the petrol can. She may yet pull a charred and mangled Brexit out of the fire. But the country and her party will continue to burn for years in the hell at the end of her road of good intentions.
History will not look kindly on Mrs May.
This is an extract from Will the Tory Party Ever Be the Same? to be published in March