Who didn’t feel a bat squeak of pity for Theresa May as her political life ran into the buffers on live TV? But the instinctive human sympathy we may feel is of a generic, rather than a specific, kind. For who thinks they ‘know’ Theresa May? The Maybot label stuck for a reason.
A long time ago, though still after she, and her party, had lost power, I had reason to think about Margaret Thatcher. And I could not get my head around her at all. Men from the more patrician wing of her party spoke of her as ‘lower middle class’, a shopkeeper’s daughter, a provincial grammar school girl. I’m some of those things, but they gave me no way in to Thatcher’s brain, her motivation, her stubbornness, and her astonishing resilience. I couldn’t crack the enigma of Thatcher until I read something said by one of her near contemporaries and political opponents, Barbara Castle.
Castle’s diary entry on the day Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Tory Party has the then Labour Cabinet minister describing Thatcher standing before the flashlights of the press photographers, smiling. “I know that look,” says Barbara Castle of Margaret Thatcher. “She is in love. In love with power, and with herself.”
Did Theresa May ever look like a woman in love? She was a bit of a looker at Oxford, if the photograph I’ve seen of her in sultry mood, her pre-Raphaelite locks cascading down her back, is anything to go by. But politically, May has never seemed to embody that iron self-confidence. Political love, like political hate, is a powerful, unsentimental thing. It emanates from a clear sense of political purpose.
And here we have the problem with Theresa. She doesn’t have any sense of political purpose.
From the time she was old enough to make sense of social conditions in the mill towns of Lancashire, Barbara Castle had burning political convictions, and one way or another, the architect of the Equal Pay Act strove to make them happen. The young Margaret Roberts might have come of age in Attlee’s socialist paradise, but no mere social climber on the make, the second Mrs. Thatcher wanted to project her vision of individual responsibility and a small state onto the whole nation – and she did it.
Theresa May wanted to be Prime Minister from her teenage years, and was apparently a bit miffed that Thatcher denied her the opportunity to be the first woman in that role. That much is in the public record. What is harder to understand is why? What did she enter politics to do?
May, is a cultural Tory, not an ideological one. The traditional cultural Tory of her generation thought ideas a little suspect, ideologies rather vulgar, and valued hard work and obedience over natural brilliance and creativity. May’s views on any issue seem to come from whichever trusted figure is speaking into her ear – Vicar father, teacher, political aide, whoever – rather than issuing from her own core beliefs.
This is evident in May’s ill-fated conference speech this week. She can steal a policy from Labour without the slightest sense of discomfort, because a policy is just a ‘thing’ – what matters is that it is implemented (or probably not) by a Tory like her.
It’s even more evident in her response to Brexit. Many commentators have spoken of May in Machiavellian terms, backing Remain, but keeping below the radar, better to snatch the crown from Cameron if he lost the referendum vote. I was prepared to buy that, too, until May showed that we were projecting too much cleverness and guile onto her. May was able to embrace Brexit, because like anything else – energy prices, social housing, racial discrimination, student fees – Brexit is just a ‘thing’ which can be bodged together as some policy announcements and maybe a bit of legislation to the accompaniment of a cheerleading press. Easy-peasy.
And so we reach this point. Because politics isn’t a game. It is about having principles, a view of human nature and what is possible, a clear sighted sense of how we got to where we are, and how we might proceed to somewhere better. From those things, and those things alone, come policy prescriptions.
May doesn’t seem to have any identifiable principles, she doesn’t have an analysis of the state we are in, and therefore she cannot put together a clear set of policies. She is out of her depth. And so is her whole party.