May has somehow managed to deprive the country of the strong and stable government she claimed that only she could provide.
It is hard to know where to start. But one thing is clear – whoever came up with the line ‘make June the end of May’ should be snapped up as a great predictive copy writer. It has happened. Huge, as Donald Trump might say. Amazing.
When Theresa May called the election which has brought about her certain demise she did not think for one nanosecond that she would be feeling the sick dive in her stomach that she and her team felt on hearing Thursday night’s exit poll. She was not alone. Most of the politicians, most of the pundits, most of the public thought she was embarking on a coronation.
How wrong we all were. We overestimated her and her team as the campaign stuttered from one mis-step to the next. And we underestimated Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to puncture her campaign by making austerity and the need for a changed approach to tax and spend and the role of the State every bit as much the issue as Brexit. Whereas she thought she could cruise through a continuity campaign, he made Labour the change, and he cut through much more than his many detractors – hands up, I have been one of them – expected him to. A campaign designed to capitalise on his and Labour’s weaknesses ended up exposing hers. David Cameron and George Osborne were right – she can’t campaign. Campaigning is what Jeremy Corbyn does, and he did it well.
Arrogance and hubris paid a big part in her failure. Team Theresa, as the government was known before the wheels started to come free, looked at the poll numbers and saw no way they could lose. But the public were already suspicious given her swift shift from soft Remainer to hard Brexiteer. Those suspicions grew when she went back on her word that she would not call a snap election. Her attempt to give a spurious national purpose to a Tory vote – ‘every vote will strengthen my hand in Brexit negotiations’ – was seen for what it was, the camouflage to disguise the fact she was putting party interest first.
By her own reckoning then, her hand is now weakened. It is weakened in the eyes of the public who wonder why on earth she put them through the election in the first place. It is weakened in the eyes of her party which has a history of being ruthless with leaders who let them down in elections. And it is weakened in the eyes of world leaders, especially the 27 leaders of the EU who will run rings round her in any negotiation. As they seek to protect their own strength, we are projecting a sense of national decline. It has to be reversed quickly, and she is not the person to do it.
She has somehow managed to deprive the country of the strong and stable government she claimed that only she could provide, at a time the country needs it most. As she reminded us again and again, in less than two weeks the negotiations are due to start. Having already begun the Article 50 process, which sets a two year timetable, two of the 24 months have been lost to the election. More time will be lost trying to make sense of the outcome. There may have to be a Tory leadership election. And it is not a Lib Dem second referendum on Europe or a SNP second referendum on Scottish independence that is likely to follow, but a second general election. Brexit is going to have to take a back seat to forming the government that can deal with it.
Meanwhile in so far as a government can be formed at all it looks like it will be with the help of the DUP in Northern Ireland. So she was right about the coalition of chaos. What we didn’t realise was that she was going to lead it.
It is actually shaming to think that this is what our national leadership has become. And to hear the talk immediately moving to whether Boris Johnson or David Davis should take over … my God is this what we have come to?
She made so many mistakes along the way, but one was her decision, once she took over from David Cameron on the back of his lost referendum campaign, to govern very much for the 52%, and in fact not even all of them, with two fingers to the 48% who voted Remain or the millions who didn’t vote at all.
What the election showed, in her inability to engage with people, her inaccessibility, her refusal to debate, her robotic repetition of vacuous slogans, her total reliance on a narrow band of advisers, is that she is not someone good at adapting to changing situations. I doubt she is capable of the change of tone and the change of the character of her leadership that is clearly required. That is why a change of leader, given the Tories’ regicidal tendencies, is inevitable. But even if a new leader got their own mandate a much more consensual approach to Brexit is absolutely essential. To that end perhaps a hung Parliament can be a good thing. No one line can be presented as the only possible way forward. People are going to have to drill down and make a proper assessment of the facts, something sadly lacking both from the referendum and the election.
The country voted to leave the EU. But in the election they voted, among many other things, to reject her Hard Brexit approach. It has to be rethought. The country doesn’t want it any more than they want grammar schools or austerity ad infinitum.
If May was the big loser, the right wing papers were not far behind. They threw everything they could behind her and did everything they could to destroy Corbyn. They also played a part in the development of the hubris as she made the mistake of believing the propaganda being pumped out that ‘Theresa’, as Paul Dacre insists on headlining her – I’m not sure he is the right guy for the task of humanisation – was some kind of mix of Margaret Thatcher, Mother Theresa and the Queen. His and their inability to call the shots is another excellent outcome. People saw through it all, as it became abundantly clear that she lacks the strength and leadership skills of Thatcher, the humanity of the other Theresa, and the public appeal of the Queen. It has been excruciating to watch her at times, and when her manifesto launch crashed on the rocks of an ill thought out new social care policy, and then the overly-politicised response to the London attacks, which brought confidence in her record as Home Secretary crashing, the weaknesses people saw went well beyond the mere presentational.
Strong and stable went weak and wobbly to the extent that she became the first party leader in history to drop a central manifesto pledge before the vote had even taken place. Europe noticed. And while we don’t necessarily need our leaders to be nice, cuddly, sociable beings, when it comes to dealing with Europe, personal relations matter, and as Nicola Sturgeon pointed out during the campaign, May appears incapable of engaging beyond a script. The EU leaders, both the politicians and those who are in charge of the day to day detailed deliberations, have enormous experience and a mix of the personal and political skills required. Again, I fear the Tories really believe the propaganda being pumped out, that ‘they need us more than we need them’. It is utterly delusional.
The Economist’s Berlin correspondent, Jeremy Cliffe, tweeted this week: ‘It is hard to overstate how withering German press coverage of Britain has been over this election campaign,’ and he said there were four big themes to that – 1) why no Brexit regret? 2) ‘Global Britain’ as post-colonial neurosis. 3) The underfunded British state. 4) Wobbly Theresa May. We are being viewed as a country in decline.
The tragedy is that with Emmanuel Macron now leading France, and Angela Merkel leading Germany, a British Prime Minister working with them rather than against them would never be in a better position both to reform Europe, and also to act as real leaders of the world in the era of Trump and Putin.
Thanks to Mrs May right now we don’t have leadership at all, never mind of the strong and stable sort.