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May’s fatal flaw

Credit: Peter Summers/Getty Images

May 24, 2019   10 mins

After a turbulent three years, the end of May is here. The Prime Minister has announced that she will step down on Friday 7th June. And in doing so she achieved what no one thought possible: she united both Leavers and Remainers. Did she squander opportunity or was she doomed from the start? We asked our contributors to consider why, under Theresa, nothing changed.


Overlooking the overlooked

James Bloodworth, journalist and author of the Orwell Prize nominated book Hired

If only May had acted upon those promises she made in that first speech as leader – the one that has become reduced to her ‘citizens of nowhere’ dig – things could have been so different.

In that keynote, delivered to a conference just after the Brexit vote, she surprised all the complacent neo-liberals in her party by lamenting the “division and unfairness all around”.

“Our society should work for everyone,” she told conference delegates, before running through a list of areas in which it wasn’t.

“If you can’t afford to get onto the property ladder… if your pay has stagnated for several years in a row… if you’ve been trying to say things need to change for years and your complaints fall on deaf ears, it doesn’t feel like it’s working for you.”

May took digs at fat cats, tax avoiders and “citizens of nowhere”, pledging to tackle the injustices of low pay and precarious work.

The rest is history. All these promises fell by the wayside as her premiership progressed. Sure, the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices – which May’s government commissioned – did come up with some interesting and proactive suggestions. And the government promised to at least consult on all but one of Matthew Taylor’s recommendations. But then… nothing.

This was her great opportunity. This is where she could have made a difference to the lives of so many of those people who had voted in the referendum for change. But like so much else, workplace reform was gradually subsumed by Brexit.

So Brexit created Theresa, then destroyed Theresa. And it also contributed to her greatest failure as PM: that signal failure to significantly improve the lives of the ‘left behinds’ she pledged to serve back in 2016.


Her intransigence

Polly Mackenzie, director of Demos

Theresa May’s failure is all Ken Clarke’s fault. He accidentally gave her a brand identity when he was caught on camera calling her a “bloody difficult woman”. She loved it. Her team loved it. Conservative MPs who spent their teenage years pining over a Margaret Thatcher poster loved it. Bloody difficult woman, Mrs May thought: that’s who to be if I want to be loved.

She was always intransigent, as Home Secretary. But once “bloody difficult” got hung around her neck, she revelled in it, sticking to positions as rigidly as the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, who got rusted into paralysis by unexpected rainfall.

She fought and argued, unblinkingly, for her withdrawal agreement long after it was dead, long after the body was rolled through the crematorium and the ashes were scattered.

I can understand why she clung to the belief that intransigence would, in the end, pay a political dividend. It seems to be the path to popularity in politics today. The No Deal Brexiteers refuse to budge, even if that risks no Brexit at all – and yet their tribe love them. Jeremy Corbyn built an entire political career out of never changing his mind and young people chant his name at festivals.

The problem, Theresa, is that intransigence only works for ideologues. You can’t be rigidly pragmatic, any more than the Tin Man could start dancing without having his joints oiled. In your resignation speech, you stressed the importance of compromise: the whole point of compromising is that you have to bring people together. If no-one will join you on the dance floor, you need to find a different song. We can only hope the next Prime Minister will do so.


The hostile environment

Bidisha, writer, broadcaster and film-maker

Theresa May’s biggest failure was as Home Secretary, not as Prime Minister. In 2013, she gave a now-notorious speech at the Home Office, introducing the central tenets of the ‘hostile environment’. To me – and this is just my opinion – it was a racist, aggressive, inhumane and sadistic warning. The hostile environment has persisted since then, unabated. It has fanned the flames of (what I see as) an increasingly openly racist, xenophobic and insular England. It has worsened with Brexit – for which it laid the groundwork.

I’ve reminded myself of that Home Office speech when, over the last three years, I’ve started feeling sympathy for Theresa May as Prime Minister. Well – not sympathy, exactly, but a kind of wonder at how she manages to get up every morning, put together an outfit and get through her day of work. She inherited the ultimate ‘glass cliff’ job: cleaning up a man’s stupid mess. David Cameron’s opinion poll on Brexit was callous and dangerous.

May might have convinced herself that she should and must and could ‘deliver Brexit’. She might have shown a steeliness, and an impressive poker face, in calling a snap election that caused her to lose her mandate – and in repeatedly forcing votes on the same unsatisfactory deal. But she does not have the fine shrewdness and responsiveness of the true political survivor – and neither did her predecessor.

May’s resignation speech showed, finally, an awareness of her own isolation and powerlessness. But ultimately, this is a mess of Cameron’s making. Brexit is a mistake and a catastrophe that poisons anyone who touches it, be they Tory, Labour or anything else. May’s departure is simply another inevitable episode in an unpleasant and unnecessary crisis – one that reflects the growing darkness of the political landscape.


The backstop

Helen Thompson, professor of political economy at the University of Cambridge

Theresa May’s departure was probably inevitable from the moment she lost her gamble to establish a Conservative majority big enough to get her withdrawal agreement through the House of Commons.

But she made one crucial misjudgement after the general election. In December 2017, she accepted the EU’s demand that the terms of the UK’s departure include a commitment that nothing would change on the Irish border. After an uproar, she redefined her backstop so that it applied to the whole of the UK, rather than just Northern Ireland – but this alteration left unaltered the commitment to prioritise the Irish border.

Whether the move was justifiable or not, in subordinating Brexit to another claim, May damaged the supply and confidence arrangement with the DUP; gave her ERG critics a permanent line of attack; fuelled the concern among part of the Leave coalition that she was pursuing Brexit in name only; and gave those in Parliament who want to stop Brexit reason to think it could be abandoned. In this political environment, she needed considerable good fortune.

The Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, tried to help her with the concessions made before the second meaningful vote, but did not reckon on Geoffrey Cox’s intervention. John Bercow repeatedly tried to thwart her – and managed to, right up until his refusal to take Gareth Snell and Lisa Nandy’s amendment on the third meaningful vote. But Cox was articulating the backstop’s legal logic, and the Speaker had his opportunity because the backstop gave anti-Brexit MPs a justification to keep fighting.

She chose in December 2017 a way of delivering Brexit that had little chance of success and has now paid the price.


Her empty words

Paul Embery, firefighter and trade union official

Theresa May’s finest two moments as prime minister were her inaugural and valedictory speeches. The rest was abject failure.

Her maiden address on the steps of Downing Street in 2016 hit the sort of unifying note that appealed not just to traditional Tory voters but also to those in the working-class Labour heartlands. She spoke of leading a One Nation government, tackling poverty and putting the interests of working-class families before those of the rich and powerful.

This was buttressed by her first Tory conference speech as prime minister, in which she railed against the international elites, untrammelled markets and the concept of being a “citizen of nowhere”. It was a pitch towards those who were, let’s say, not entirely sold on the idea of a liberal, cosmopolitan, borderless world dominated by global corporations.

She had parked her tanks squarely on Labour’s lawn – and some of us inside the Labour party saw danger ahead.

But the rhetoric didn’t match the reality, and her premiership quickly reverted to stale Tory dogma. Most destructively, she continued David Cameron’s programme of austerity, which had always been as needless as it was damaging, and caused suffering to the very people she claimed to be standing up for.

In her departure speech, she mentioned the tragedy of Grenfell Tower and the need to ensure that such a disaster never happens again. These words will ring a bit hollow to those, like me, who work in the fire and rescue service and have witnessed the savage cuts that have been inflicted on our industry over recent years.

On Brexit, she made all the right sounds early on. She had no choice but to affirm that the UK would leave the EU, if necessary, without a deal (frankly, no prime minister could do otherwise without handing an effective veto to the EU). But when the time came, she bottled it. And from that moment, her credibility was shot.

Her final address emphasised the value of compromise. It has its place, of course. But in trying to please everyone, you sometimes end up pleasing no-one. As, in the end, she discovered to her cost.


Her untruthfulness

Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London and Director of the Mile End Institute

After the initial surge of sympathy provoked in my sentimental old soul by Theresa May’s tears at the end of her speech in Downing Street, all I could think of Oscar Wilde’s words on Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop: “One must have a heart of stone,” Wilde wrote, “to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”

It was a speech of epic self-delusion and self-justification, followed by a veritable flood of hypocrisy from many of those who had made her life – indeed, all our lives – a misery for the last two years. Ultimately, though, they aren’t to blame for the mess the country and the Conservative Party is in today. She is. Where, then, did it all go so terribly wrong?

It was as soon as she stepped through the door of Number Ten Downing Street. Instead of turning round and telling people, particularly in her own party, the truth – namely that the referendum was a close run thing, that people had voted Leave for a myriad of different reasons, that the Irish border was bound to prove problematic, and that, more generally, the EU-27 weren’t going to allow the UK to have its cake and eat it – she decided to present herself as Brexitier-than-thou.

Quite why we can only guess. There are a number of possibilities, even leaving aside the temptation to cast her erstwhile adviser, Nick Timothy as the serpent.

Perhaps it was pure partisan opportunism – the thought of the Tories pulling off Brexit and pulling in many of the four million voters who had supported UKIP in 2015. Perhaps it was the need to prove her personal bona fides after playing the role of reluctant Remainer in the referendum campaign. Perhaps it was her tendency, after five years as Home Secretary, to see everything through the prism of immigration: Vote Leave stressed it; therefore the referendum was won on it; therefore free movement must end; therefore hard Brexit.

From that initial decision everything else flowed.


Her lack of persuasiveness

Jenny McCartney, Journalist and Author

I do not doubt that Mrs May loves her country, as she avowed this morning, and has a strong conception of duty and public service – why else would she have so stoically endured the vitriol constantly poured upon her? The trouble was that the country did not feel as if Mrs May loved it. In that she resembled one of those parents who find themselves tragically estranged from a child for whom they had a powerful internal affection, but seemed unable fully to translate that affection convincingly into words or, often, deeds. 

It was Mrs May who, in 2002, warned that the Conservative Party was in danger of becoming ‘the nasty party’. Yet, in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, her delay in assuring EU nationals of their secure future in the UK indicated a lack of emotional intelligence at a time when the country badly needed such direction. So too did the human distress caused by the Windrush scandal, which stemmed from policies put in place during her time as Home Secretary.

The ‘precariat,’ despite her post-referendum assurances, have felt no more secure under her time in office. Her task of enacting Brexit was a thankless and fiendishly difficult one, but under her direction the UK, at key points, has also seemed an unnecessarily ungenerous place. 

May has great doggedness – an important quality in political life – but an absence of persuasiveness. That proved a dangerous combination. The doggedness repeatedly drew her back to preferred solutions – but without the ability to persuade others of their merits and absorb their concerns, repetition did not improve the outcome. Yet if May’s flaw has, in large part, been sincerity without communication, we must guard now against falling into the opposite trap, and possibly a worse one: a Prime Minister who can communicate without sincerity.


The system

Peter Franklin, editor of UnHerd’s UnPacked column

The political obituaries have already been written: Theresa May was a terrible Prime Minister.

Well, they’re right about that – but for the wrong reasons. Her mistakes and weaknesses, though many and significant, were not crucial mistakes or fatal weaknesses. They did not make all the difference. Rather the most obvious failure of her premiership is a failure of the entire political system: government, opposition, media, every bit of the machine – all the way up to the EU itself, whose collective, history-changing decision it was to make an example, not an ally, of Brexit Britain.

Our own politicians have made that pathetically easy for them. There is not a single faction of any size in this parliament that has shown genuine leadership on Brexit – and precious few individuals. They have wilfully confused compromise with betrayal, and principle with their own self-interest.

Together they made Theresa May’s job an impossible one. It’s hard to look back over the flowchart of her decisions and identify an alternative pathway that would have produced a different result. Given the system she was operating within, she was doomed from the moment she lost her majority – and she’d quite possibly have been doomed if she hadn’t called the snap election.

But this is not to absolve her from all responsibility. Rather, what she’s to blame for is not primarily the decisions she made, but those she didn’t make. The original sin of her premiership was not doing anything about the system that made her downfall inevitable.

There were attacks on the previous regime, but they were petty ones – from the very public humiliation of George Osborne to the ‘not invented here’ abandonment of promising policy initiatives like the Northern Powerhouse and the Life Chances Strategy. At the same time, she left in place many of the worst policies of the Cameron era – such as the counter-productive ‘Help to Buy’ scheme for aspiring homeowners (which is in fact a subsidy for the big developers); the sinking student loan system; and the white elephants of Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, HS2 and Heathrow expansion.

Despite promises of “an economy that works for everyone”, there was no obvious sign of any fundamental shift in the priorities of the system – not in infrastructure investment from London to our other great cities; not in education spending from the bloated university system to the under-resourced technical education sector; not in the tax burden the parasitic rentier class places on those struggling for a stake in the productive economy.

From Whitehall and Westminster, where the power-hoarding and hucksterish culture of politics became more entrenched than ever, to the still left-behind communities that Theresa May imagined would swing behind her insubstantial rhetoric, it became obvious that, in her words, “nothing has changed”.

The failure to deliver Brexit is both a symbol – and ultimately the result – of that much bigger failure.

Various Contributors bringing a range of different voices.


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