Theresa May’s closed mind has brought her country to the brink of disaster. NICK COHEN’s damning verdict on a prime minister unfit to lead.
When Theresa May became prime minister the BBC ran a profile of her which confirmed the comforting stories the English once told themselves. A contemporary at Oxford University said she was a ‘very normal’ woman who did not ‘stand out, act posh, act different’.
Her friend, the Conservative peer Baroness Jenkin added that May had ‘an organised mind and a capable mind. I don’t think it’s a brilliant mind. But does it matter?’ Probably not, concluded Matthew Parris, the presenter. May was a practical politician who understood the concerns of the middle and lower-middle classes not an airy theorist.
Did you not see the appeal of the vicar’s daughter from the Thames Valley when she arrived in Downing Street? No flash ideas. But who wants politicians who are too clever by half, to use an insult only the English take seriously?
Sensible rather than intellectual; concerned with the suburbs, the towns and the countryside, rather than the cosmopolitan cities, she appealed to a notion of Englishness which goes back to the anti-Jacobin reaction against the French Revolution.
Europeans pursued dangerous ideas and utopian dreams. The English may be stolid and boring in comparison, but were all the happier for it. When faced with the choice of her, Boris Johnson or Andrea Leadsom as prime minister in 2016 many from far beyond the Tory party were relieved the job went to May, ‘the only adult in the room’.
You can only use that cliché as a bitter joke now. May’s dismal achievement has been to shut Britain in a room without adults. Within a month – or, more probably, four months – we could be facing a recession as more than 40 years of legal and trade relations disappear, food shortages as perishable imports are left at the docks, and a health crisis as a no-deal Brexit has ‘an immediate and drastic effect’ on supply chains for medicines, vaccines, medical devices and equipment, as the Lancet put it. Not even the greatest project fearmonger predicted in 2016 that four weeks from our departure the British prime minister would be playing Russian roulette with the country’s future: spinning the chamber and clicking the trigger until she gets her way.
These are among the most extraordinary days we will live through. Jobs are already going. Investment is already vanishing. The prime minister offers MPs a vote on stopping no-deal. But when the Labour MP Jess Phillips cried in the Commons on Tuesday: ‘Will the prime minister for once do a brave thing. Will she be brave and at least answer the question of my colleague. Will she at least vote herself against no-deal?’ Theresa May, the leader of the nation, could offer no honest reply. As, vote or no vote, we crash out unless we find a deal, now would seem a good time to panic.
Your fellow citizens still regard you as an eccentric if you stockpile food and medicines. But that is because they believe practical, sensible Britain would never gratuitously harm itself. You can take the self-confidence as a tribute to centuries of stability, which has nurtured the belief that ‘it can’t happen here’. A far darker stupidity is also at play on the right, however: a stupidity that goes to the heart of Theresa May’s failure as prime minister.
Outsiders can still construct a case in her defence – although I find it telling that no one who knows the prime minister well is making it. She has no majority. She did not call the referendum in the hope she could schmooze her way to victory – David Cameron did that.
She is not personally responsible for throwing away her chance to help the middle and lower and middle classes. The right of her party ensured the European question engulfed her administration by insisting on the hardest imaginable Brexit. On this reading, May is a prisoner of circumstances that are not of her making. The dilettantism of her predecessor and the extremism of her colleagues have trapped her. She is a victim not a villain.
If she is, she is a willing victim: a prisoner who has locked herself up and thrown away the key. Not once has she gone over the heads of her party and spoken plainly to the country. She might have spelt out the hard truth that, if we cut our ties with Europe, we would have more sovereign power but only at an enormous economic cost.
She might have taken on Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Dominic Cummings and exposed the real lie of the 2016 referendum campaign, which was not that Brexit would give us £350 million a-week for the NHS – shocking though that was – but that Brexit would be easy.
As it is, millions of Britons are still living in 2016. They still believe we can leave the EU without pain; and maintain that, when manufacturers, doctors, farmers, economists, civil servants, and our allies (what’s left of them) warn against a hard Brexit, they are at best hysterics and at worst liars.
I am not sure that readers of a pro-European newspaper realise how deluded the right wing has become and how deep and wide the rot has spread. The 70 or so members of the European Research Group may be little more than a faction in the Commons, but they represent a far broader right in the country that has lost its wits, and shows no inclination to go looking for them.
Last weekend, the national convention of the chairs of Conservative associations voted overwhelmingly against the government supporting another referendum, delaying Brexit beyond the European elections, or ruling out a no-deal Brexit. In other words, they were ready to risk catastrophe because they did not believe a catastrophe was possible. To be fair, their prime minister has said nothing to put them straight.
The most neurotic feature of our unhinged polity has been Britain’s willingness to argue about Winston Churchill, as if we preferred living in 1940 to facing the crisis in front of us. Say what you like about the old boy, and there is much to say against him, at least he warned the British about the ‘blood, toil, tears, and sweat’ ahead. From his biographer Boris Johnson to his successor Theresa May, his descendants in the Tory party, have failed to imitate his bluntness.
It is this deep dishonesty, this inability to acknowledge that populist nationalism in an interconnected world comes at a cost, which is destroying May and could yet destroy our country. Lest we forget, her proposed Brexit went down to a staggering defeat in the Commons – a failure that would have compelled the resignation of a more honourable prime minister.
For months she pretended she could rewrite the deal she made with the European Union, only to tacitly admit this week that no significant change is possible. She is flirting with disaster by pushing Brexit to the wire, in the hope she will force the Commons to back the plan it rejected.
Far from being solid and practical, May is a staggeringly irresponsible politician, more akin to Donald Trump than the sensible Miss Marple figure commentators imagined they had found when she walked into Downing Street.
Her mendacity and recklessness have left her without allies. Westminster is full of politicians and commentators predicting that, despite everything, she will find the votes to get her deal through. Perhaps they are right. I’m a journalist not a soothsayer and cannot say. Nevertheless it’s worth thinking about her friendlessness.
MPs know there are more options than her road or the road to hell, and it is at least possible that she will lose control before the end of March. Leaving everything else to one side, MPs need to trust a prime minister before they support her, and trust in Theresa May has vanished. Far from being grateful for her gentleness, the Brexit right talk in Weimaresque language of her ‘betrayal’ of ‘the people’. What remains of the Conservative mainstream in the Commons stares in wonder at her inability to develop a coherent strategy.
There are no ‘Mayites’ in the cabinet helping her build the widest possible support. No one knows what she wants or whether she knows it herself. In a fine piece for the Times, Matthew Parris, who made the flattering portrait of May for the BBC, recanted.
May was like a black hole sucking the light out of politics, he said. ‘Warnings are delivered to her, and ignored. Plans are run by her, unacknowledged. Messages are sent to her, unanswered. She has become the unperson of Downing Street: the living embodiment of the closed door.’ Most seriously of all, ministers do not know whether she would push us over the cliff. Take a pause and consider that for a moment. The politicians who know her as well as anyone cannot assure us she would never risk Britain’s ruin. Everyone talks of her shutting out hard questions. ‘The most striking thing of all is how little she displayed much interest in wider political issues,’ said Nick Clegg after working with her in cabinet. When ‘the issues’ cannot be wider, the ignorance of a closed and cloistered mind is at its most dangerous.
Lord Salisbury delivered the original ‘too clever by half’ insult in 1961 as he slapped down the middle-class Iain Macleod with patrician disdain. Macleod was too smart and slippery to lead the Conservatives, Salisbury noted. Why, he had even made money as a professional card player before becoming a politician. May is proving that it’s better to be too clever than too stupid; better to know when to cut your losses than gamble with your country when you have no cards to play.