‘I can see in May’s eyes in public what I saw in Blair’s in private... loneliness’
- Credit: Archant
Very few people know Theresa May well. But you don't need to know her well to see the agony going on inside.
Just round to the left of the front door inside 10 Downing Street is a small, unprepossessing waiting room. Taking pride of place is the framed text of Theresa May's first speech as prime minister, delivered outside the building, just after she returned from Buckingham Palace on July 13, 2016. Who wouldn't be proud to become prime minister of their own country? Who wouldn't therefore want visitors to see what you believe, what the mission of your premiership will be?
Once you get past the comedic description of David Cameron as a 'great' prime minister, it is not a bad speech. The problem for May is that visitors drawn to read it are reminded not how clear and bold the vision is, but how little of it is being delivered.
Her mission? To fight a whole series of 'burning injustices'…
'If you're born poor, you will die on average nine years earlier than others.
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If you're black, you're treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you're white.
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If you're at a state school, you're less likely to reach the top professions than if you're educated privately.
If you're a woman, you will earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there's not enough help to hand.
If you're young, you'll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.'
How much, or – more to the point – how little, progress has been made, on any and all of the above? How hard must that be for a prime minister who, like all prime ministers, wants to do the job well, wants to be thought to be doing it well, wants to be seen delivering according to stated beliefs and policies, wants a legacy, wants to be remembered, positively, by history?
Remember the so-called JAMs, the Just-About-Managing families struggling to get by? 'The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.' That didn't last long, did it? The slogan long forgotten, the families still struggling, not JAMs driving the government but JRM, as in Jacob Rees-Mogg, for whom the phrase 'privileged few' might have been invented.
The Union gets a mention too: 'not everybody knows this, but the full title of my party is the Conservative and Unionist Party, and that word 'unionist' is very important to me.' At the time, she was thinking about the threat of Scottish independence. Two years and a botched election later, the greatest threat to the Union is in Northern Ireland, and the word 'unionist' is so important to her that she has given the Democratic Unionists a virtual right of veto on her government. Nor am I wholly convinced the DUP share the warm words and vision set out on the waiting room wall.
It is when you reach the very end of the speech that you get to the heart of her problem, the cause of the torture she is enduring.
'We are living through an important moment in our country's history. Following the referendum, we face a time of great national change.
And I know because we're Great Britain, that we will rise to the challenge. As we leave the European Union, we will forge a bold new positive role for ourselves in the world, and we will make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.
That will be the mission of the government I lead, and together we will build a better Britain.'
I know what I would think if I was a diplomat, a businessman, a charity leader, an MP, a civil servant or journalist, anyone passing through that waiting room each day…
'Oh dear. It's not going very well, is it?' The Europe bit's not going well. The vision thing's not going well. And it's the Europe thing that's wiping out the vision thing. What's more, she knows it.
How else to explain the extraordinary interview in South Africa, where time and again she was asked by Lewis Goodall of Sky News – he had another go in Kenya – if she thought we would be better off or more powerful out of the EU, and she could not bring herself to say 'yes'? That is because she knows the answer is 'no'.
As Goodall wrote afterwards: 'Other politicians – I suspect fundamentally less honest politicians – would dextrously sidestep the question or (whatever their private views) implore that 'yes! The sunlit uplands await!'. Mrs May will not. Her refusal to do so so many times must, I think, inevitably lead us to conclude that she thinks the opposite. In other words, the British prime minister – uniquely in history – is pursuing a cardinal policy in which not only does she not believe, but that she thinks could do her nation harm.' They all want to be 'unique in history.' But not like this. This is torture.
We have 'fundamentally less honest politicians' aplenty on the Brexit scene – in the 'sunlit uplands' category, the likes of Johnson, Fox, Rees-Mogg, whose fantasies pour out regardless of any facts which might get in the way. Farage and Davis have moved into the betrayal arena, great at saying how everyone else is cocking it up, but on how it should be done, 'not my job, mate'. Labour continue with the dishonesty of a 'jobs-first Brexit' as a goal they know to be incompatible with any of the possible outcomes on offer.
But there is dishonesty in May's position too. Her Africa trip was built on a dishonesty, the notion that trade deals with emerging economies could somehow make up for what we stand to lose in leaving the EU and with it the biggest market in the world. As the economist Tim Harford pointed out, Ethiopia has an economy the size of Manchester's, Djibouti's is on a par with Aylesbury.
The three countries she visited, South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya, account for £17.5 billion of our trade. You have to multiply that figure 13 times over before you get anywhere near the £240 billion we trade with the EU. No amount of Liam Fox's fantasy deals would fill the gap, and even if the other big players in Africa pulled back – which they won't – we would be able to make up a mere fraction of what we lose. She knows that too and will know it even more keenly now she has been there.
Very few people know Theresa May well. But you don't really need to know her well to see the agony going on inside. The torture is evident to anyone who watches those interviews; or sees her reviewing troops in Africa with eyes that cannot hide her inner voice telling her there is something ridiculous about the whole thing; or sees her 'dancing' and you know that if this was a leader who believed in what she was doing, who felt confident things were going well, we would have a sense of humanity and empathy and comfort inside her own skin, when in truth we all went 'oh no … global GIF alert'.
Foreign government leaders complain of a woman who is exactly the same in private meetings as she is on public platforms – buttoned up, delivering a script, constantly saying the phrase 'what is important' as a way of deflecting back to the script. Colleagues talk of a woman with the rare talent of being able to sit in silence, even when asked a question, if she feels she has already covered the point. Only her husband Philip, they say, has any real sense of who and what she is, and how to get to her.
Being prime minister is pressured, unrelenting and lonely, even when things are going well. Everyone has a view about you. Many think they could do the job better. Security makes a normal life virtually impossible. Friends and family become media targets. Tony Blair had one of the longest political honeymoons of any prime minister. Yet every day was a struggle to cram in all the things that needed to be done, deal with the unexpected, manage a myriad difficult issues and personalities, yet keep smiling and keep the ship of state roughly headed in the right direction.
And the loneliness of power is real, because for all the ministerial discussion and the professional advice, ultimately the big decisions are yours. I remember vividly, fairly early in his premiership, when the Chief of Defence Staff had been over to ask Tony Blair to agree to special forces being deployed in a specific, difficult and dangerous mission, to be launched that night.
It was discussed at length, and he agreed. A few hours later, up in his Downing Street flat, I left to go home. But as I got to the door, I turned and stood looking at him for a few seconds. He was staring out of the window. I knew what he was thinking. His face was a portrait in loneliness. That was in private. I see that look on Theresa May's face in public.
It is hard enough when you are pursuing things you believe in with every fibre of your heart and all the passion you can muster. What must it be like inside you when you are doing something you don't believe in, that you know is going to be bad for the country, that you know is going wrong, that you know is pleasing next to nobody, taking up all your time and energy so that other challenges go un-met, helping old enemies and creating new ones, so that every day feels like nothing more than a paranoid battle to get to bed intact? That is not a healthy, happy life for a political leader. It is as far away from the tone and feel of that first speech as it is possible to be.
Mr May, your wife needs you. So does your country. Might it be that only you can end this torture, for both? Do the decent thing. By getting her to do the right thing. As she wakes one morning, ask her, 'How long can you go on like this? What do you really think is best for the country? What is the real answer to the question about whether it is the right thing or the wrong thing to leave? And if it is the wrong thing, Theresa, which you clearly think it is, what is the right way to do the right thing, and get the country to change course?'
And might the answer be setting out to the country that she has done her best, she will get the best available deal, she accepts it is not ideal, she knows it is different to what many expected or were promised, and as it is such an enormous step for the country to take, she wants the public to have the final say as to whether we proceed with it?
It would put her premiership in peril, for sure, given the hatreds, enmities and ambitions inside her party. But it would end the torture for her. It would give the country the sense of a route out of the mess and the deadlock. It would be bold. It would be the right thing to do. It might just set her free, and give her, and the country, the chance to start to meet those challenges she set out on July 13, 2016, which because of the fog of Brexit are yellowing on a wall in a Downing Street residence whose main occupant right now comes over more as a hostage or prisoner than the leader of one of the greatest countries on earth.
Philip needs to get whispering across the pillow, 'things cannot go on like this, Theresa. There is another way. Seize it. Or let the torture destroy you, and take the country down with you. You're the leader. For heaven's sake, lead.'
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