Another Tory PM falls victim to Brexicide. For Brexit devours all who actually try to ‘deliver’ it, to use the verb of choice for those who think that Brexit is a fully formed ‘thing’ that can be carried on a velvet cushion and presented to an awed and grateful electorate. But Brexit isn’t deliverable. It’s a contagion, a delirium, and it kills those who touch it.
Theresa May touched Brexit. Did she believe in it? Her Brexity detractors say no. May, they say, simply saw Brexit as a means to the premiership, and the ‘delivery’ exercise as a delicate process of damage limitation. This seems disingenuous as a description of why May laid her hands upon the Brexit Thing.
Of course, Brexit’s assassination of Cameron was May’s golden chance to be PM, especially after the fall of Boris Johnson in 2016. But the Brexit Thing itself then looked like a prize worth having. On a high turnout more than half of the electorate voted for Brexit. That included most of the Conservative base, plus UKIP, and a chunk of Labour. It was the Philosopher’s Stone of politics, turning base, messy coalitions, and narrow, tenuous wins into a vista of permanent Tory rule. May and her team grabbed it, held it close, and, strong and stable, they recited the magic incantation, ‘Brexit Means Brexit’.
It worked. May and her Brexit-Tories soared in the polls. So why, and so quickly, did they start to sputter, and splinter, and crash and burn?
The conventional view now is that the problem was Theresa May. That she is a poor communicator, a wooden campaigner, a charisma-free zone. Some say she has no guiding philosophy, no firm principles, and so was easily captured, whether by Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, or by the Civil Service. Put someone else in charge, this view goes, and all will be different.
And it is true. She isn’t a good speaker. Nonetheless, the lack of oratorical gifts didn’t stop John Major pulling off an unlikely election victory in 1992. David Cameron could chillax on stage, and talk without notes or autocue, but few of us can remember a word he said. Ever since the time of Margaret Thatcher, herself a poor platform speaker, the Tory Party has finessed the weaknesses of its leaders and its programme by using the finest, fanciest political marketing tools available. That Lynton Crosby couldn’t halt the precipitate slide in the polls in 2017 was not primarily the fault of the candidate, but of the product. Brexit.
Brexit gains its potency from its unattainability. The current surge in support for the limited company posing as a political party – The Brexit Party (TM) – stems from it presenting as an insurgency against ‘elites’, ‘insiders’, ‘the metropolitan bubble’, even ‘the deep state’. Brexit, in this context, is more ‘code word’ for a deity that cannot be named, than a tangible policy. If Farage and company (Ltd) ever got near to having to ‘deliver’ Brexit, they’d probably fall apart – or more likely, divert attention to something else whilst quickly doing something that looks very like May’s orphaned ‘deal’.
Which leaves the question on this day when Theresa May resigned – would she have been any good as PM if she hadn’t been the Brexit PM?
We have her record at the Home Office to guide us here. The conventional wisdom is that the Home Office is the graveyard of political ambition. That May survived there for so long is evidence of her hard work and tenacity. She was brave, the first Tory Home Secretary to stand up to the Police Federation. She did things that weren’t designed purely to please the Tory grassroots, like questioning the use of ‘stop and search’. These things suggest that she might have been a very successful Tory PM in other circumstances, especially with a cheerleading press on her side. The Mail, remember, hailed her at first as “the new Iron Lady”.
But an alternative reading of May’s time as Home Secretary suggests someone hard-working and tenacious, yes, but also blinkered, unimaginative, and given to following orders. She took far more seriously than its author, David Cameron’s pledge to cut net migration to the “tens of thousands”. This produced the Hostile Environment with its staggering cruelty, in which people who’d lived, loved, worked and paid taxes in Britain all their adult lives lost jobs, homes, were imprisoned and deported, and in some cases were denied medical treatment, or lost their lives. And this monstrous policy didn’t even work in its own terms. Even the steadfastness against the demands of the police now looks more like a minister determined to meet the Chancellor’s demand to cut, cut and cut again. May is a person who does what she’s told, and seems to lack the imagination or empathy, or political instincts even to question it.
So would a May premiership, sans Brexit, have been about addressing those ‘burning injustices’ she once spoke about on the steps of Number 10?
Probably, but in her own terms. The only actual policies she set out were for a return of grammar schools, and the unpopular ‘Dementia Tax’ to part-fund social care. Her first Education Secretary refused to work on the former, and the newspapers shouted down the latter.
We aren’t losing a good prime minister on 9th June. We aren’t even losing someone who, in more auspicious circumstances might have been a successful PM.
The only positive thing that can be said for Theresa May is that she genuinely did try to follow the electorate’s narrowly won demand for Brexit, only to die, politically, in the process. That, and another simple truth.
Whoever comes next is likely to be worse.