Saturday 21 September 2019

Alastair Campbell: 'There's no choice for May: call another vote'

Don't call Theresa May resilient. Her doggedness is a stubborn refusal to listen to anyone else, says Alastair Campbell

Brexit supporters in the crowd wearing Union flags during a Leave Means Leave
Brexit supporters in the crowd wearing Union flags during a Leave Means Leave "Save Brexit" rally in London. Photo: John Stillwell/PA Wire

Alastair Campbell

It has become fashionable to praise Theresa May for her 'resilience', and also to express sympathy for her predicament. I find it hard to do either.

Bill Clinton once said to me of Tony Blair that he sometimes felt TB, at the time under constant attack from all quarters, "wanted a blue ribbon to do the job", adding "the blue ribbon IS the job". Nobody made him do it, and nobody makes Theresa May do it. At least Tony Blair did it well, sufficient to win three terms in office and deliver significant change and success, not least the Good Friday Agreement that helped usher in a peaceful era on the island of Ireland.

Any sympathy I might feel at the tough hand David Cameron bequeathed to Mrs May, or the onerous workload and responsibilities she bears, evaporates when I consider the succession of strategic mis-steps she had made on this wretched Brexit journey, which lead me to conclude she is not up to the task.

As for resilience, it is an important quality in anyone, and certainly in a job as high pressured as prime minister. She has had plenty of setbacks, and she just keeps going. Fine. But when the resilience is actually stubbornness, a refusal to listen to any advice but her own, an inability to adapt to change around her, then the strength becomes a weakness.

Last week, Andy Serkis, aka Gollum of Lord of the Rings fame, made a video in which Gollum became Mrs May, lovingly stroking her cherished Brexit deal. She trotted out the tired mantras about it to a world tired of hearing them and now believed by nobody but her; she railed at tricksy Remainers and, even worse, 'people' who might be tempted by a People's Vote. When Gollum switches to her nicer alter ego, Smeagol, who is telling her people hate the deal, and should have a say on her masterpiece, the spittle firing from her mouth in anger as she returns to being Gollum was enough to make you wince. It was a brutal piece of work. Brutal. But brilliant.

TS Eliot described wit as "the alliance of levity and seriousness by which the seriousness is intensified", and the Serkis portrayal falls into the category. It was funny. But he was on to something about her character that cut through, and perhaps explains the many millions of views after it went viral.

She talks about the national interest an awful lot. But what is now coming through is that this really is all about her. "It's my deal, and I will have it. It's my ball and nobody else gets to play with it. And if the pound takes a tumble, if government descends into chaos, and the Mother of Parliamentary democracies descends into farce, then so be it. It is a price worth paying for me to keep my deal and my Premiership alive."

I used to think Mrs May was driven by a profound sense of duty. But I think she has developed a deeper sense of entitlement. The woman who was irritated in her 20s that Margaret Thatcher beat her into the history books as our first female prime minister is where she thinks she belongs, leading her party, running the country. Only she isn't running the country. Nobody is. She isn't running her party. She has lost control. For a control freak, that must be a truly horrible feeling.

As I watch her now I am reminded of the kind of things her Cabinet colleagues have said about her down the years. Secretive. Controlling. Stubborn. Unempathetic. Tin-eared. Lacking in the personal skills required to put people at ease, bring them into your confidence, build teams and alliances.

Some or all of those characteristics have been on display at virtually every mis-step. The red lines that were laid down without her senior ministers being aware or involved. Triggering Article 50 prematurely without a plan. The election that was never going to happen, and then it did, and she lost the majority Cameron had won. Her idea.

Only her idea. One minute, it was absolutely the wrong thing to do, the next minute absolutely the right thing to do. Both argued with the same Gollumesque conviction.

So she has been on her ludicrous nationwide tour to hammer home the message this is the only deal available and then, when she finally got the message that she was facing the biggest Commons defeat of modern or indeed ancient times, there was suddenly a better deal available and she was the only woman alive who could get it.

Only she can't. She does not have the reputational or personal capital in the bank with EU leaders to win anything other than tweaks and twiddles. And she lacks personal and political capital in the bank with her MPs to be able to move them without the fundamental changes that the EU will not and cannot grant. And never forget why. Because she laid down red lines which, combined with the realities of the Good Friday Agreement, left the EU with no choice but to deliver the kind of deal they have.

One of her fellow heads of government told me that at the Salzburg summit, where she had done next to no real preparation of how her 'plan' at that time would land with her colleagues, she used her allotted slot to read out the contents of an article she had written in a German newspaper that morning.

The lack of warmth towards her, is a direct reflection of the lack of warmth and understanding she shows to others.

I suppose there is inevitably a part of any leader who at times will equate their own interest and future with that of the nation. And of course the authority and survival of a nation's leader is an important factor in any country's strength. But what recent days have shown is not just that the interests of the Tory party are being put ahead of the national interest, as they have been on Europe for years, but that to Mrs May, her own personal interests are now more important to her than both. Her party and the country are close to the end of their tether with it.

Her deal will not get through Parliament. She is good at kicking cans down the road. But at some stage, she will run out of tarmac. That is when she will have no choice but to put the whole Brexit business back to the people, in a People's Vote. It cannot come soon enough to stop this humiliation.

Alastair Campbell was the long-time spokesman for Tony Blair

Sunday Independent

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