Tuesday 22 October 2019

Tom Peck: 'In the end, the Maybot was human, all too human'

A style of her own: UK Prime Minister Theresa May leaves the Smith England hairdresser salon during a visit to Salisbury. Photo: FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA/BLOOMBERG
A style of her own: UK Prime Minister Theresa May leaves the Smith England hairdresser salon during a visit to Salisbury. Photo: FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA/BLOOMBERG

Tom Peck

'Boris has negotiated in Europe. I seem to remember last time he did a deal with the Germans, he came back with three nearly new water cannon."

A great joke that, and well delivered too, by a woman looking decidedly happy with her lot in life, comfortable in a tartan Vivienne Westwood trouser suit and comfortable in her own skin. Eleven days later she became prime minister, and was never seen or heard from again. Theresa May walked in to 10 Downing Street because the Brexit wing of her party could not work out what they wanted. Three years later, she will walk out again for the same reason.

It has been a premiership so badly mutilated by self-inflicted injury, it is almost hard to see, now, that it was in any case doomed from the start. To become prime minister of the UK because the incumbent has decided of his own free will that the task ahead is one he cannot do is a historical one-off.

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David Cameron's view, by the way, as expressed on June 24, 2016, was that only someone who believed in Brexit could lead the country forward. What Theresa May actually believes about Brexit is as mysterious as ever, even now. Does anyone know what she actually believes about anything? To hold an opinion risks someone prising it from you, after all. She is far too cautious for that.

But she voted remain, we know that, a decision that all but compelled her to hand key jobs in her cabinet to prominent Brexiteers. But foreign secretary Johnson would prove an international embarrassment, unable to prevent himself saying appalling things that no MP should say, and certainly not the country's most senior diplomat.

David Davis and Liam Fox carried on making wild claims about Brexit that could never be delivered, except now they were holding executive positions. It was a farce that could never be sustained. But from this impossible starting position, she condemned herself yet further, on a momentous night in June last year, which we shall come on to later.

It has been a remarkable cameo in the highest office in the land. Like so many people in public life, Gordon Brown, being the most striking comparison, it was not until she stepped under the most piercing spotlight of all that her true character was revealed. It should be clear, now that the usual high barrier to entry to her position - leading the opposition and winning a general election - is there for a reason.

Just days after becoming prime minister, a military coup was attempted in Turkey, and she was required to record a simple TV clip for the news channels on what had happened. She winced down the lens like a deer in headlights. It was a countenance few had recalled seeing before. No one is a stranger to it now.

The telegenic and communicative aspects of the job that are so crucial in modern politics, for better or worse, were severely beyond her, and it would come to cost her everything.

Until the moment the general election exit polls came out at 10pm on June 8, 2017, it could be argued she had been a master political strategist. When she drove back from the palace having first become prime minister in July the year before, she stood outside 10 Downing Street in the bright summer sun and robbed the centre left of their policy agenda. She promised to reform the "burning injustices" of modern Britain, to build a country "that does not just work for the privileged few".

At her first prime minister's questions, she appeared possessed by the ghost of Margaret Thatcher, not so much defeating Jeremy Corbyn as vaporising him. Then, a few months later, she gave her first conference speech, in which the robes of Ukip were placed over the centre left ones she had not yet taken off.

Policies were announced that appeared to include companies publishing lists of foreign workers. Grammar schools were coming back. And, in words that were aimed principally at offshore-dwelling tax avoiders but were nonetheless received with great offence by millions of British-born, Britain-dwelling people, she said: "If you're a citizen of the world you're a citizen of nowhere."

The outrage that followed did nothing to restrict her poll lead to anything less than 20 points for long months ahead. She spent long months saying "Brexit means Brexit," unbothered and unblemished by the ridicule she received for her almost admirable lack of subtlety in refusing to answer simple questions.

Eventually, she decided what Brexit meant. "Out of the customs union, out of the single market," she said in a speech at Lancaster House which, to anyone with a detailed understanding of the workings of the European Union, was immediately obvious as a huge strategic error. She laid down red lines which would have to be crossed, even in favourable circumstances. And when the time came, circumstances were not favourable.

Not that it mattered, for the time being. The Conservatives won a by-election in Copeland that appeared to undermine the Corbyn project utterly. And so, while walking in Snowdonia with her husband, she took what looked to be a wise and sensible decision. It was to secure the parliamentary majority she would need to secure the passage of her Brexit deal through parliament.

It was also to push back the date of the next general election far beyond the deadline of the Article 50 process, which she imagined would remove political leverage against her from both Labour and the EU.

The blame for what happened next is the subject of a row that will never end. But in the coming weeks, she allowed her advisers to build a personality cult around a woman who would reveal herself, day after agonising day, to have no personality at all - earning her 'Maybot' moniker.

The slogans she hoped would win that election, "strong and stable," "coalition of chaos", cut through to the extent that two years later they are still the subject of mickey-taking cards in novelty gift shops. And as she reinvented herself as a subject of ridicule, Corbyn held his nerve against all odds, and became the candidate of choice for the huge constituency of people that hold huge sway over the outcome of elections - namely, the ones who care nothing for politics but decide in the days before votes which potential prime minister they would rather have a beer with.

Nobody foresaw her losing that particular contest. She lost it hands down. It would lead to her standing in a sports hall in Maidenhead at 3am, wearing a mask of utter despair.

From that point on, her job and her life became impossible. The DUP was recruited to prop up her minority government. In the negotiations with the EU, the Northern Ireland Border question, which was meant to be one of the simple things to get out of the way before the real talks began, became intractable.

They would not countenance any return to a customs Border on the island of Ireland. She could not countenance remaining in the customs union. She shed cabinet ministers at an unprecedented rate. She lost more parliamentary votes, 28, than Cameron, Brown, Tony Blair and John Major put together.

It is possible history will note a staggering amount of bad luck. It was her choice to ride the impossible bronco of Brexit. President Trump is a crisis she could not have seen coming. And surely no one has ever paid so high a price for a sore throat.

The intricacies of who blames who for the misery the country and its prime minister have been through together are too complex to chart. Whoever has tortured who, there is nobody who hasn't suffered. Do not be surprised if, after the pressure valve is released, surprisingly large reserves of empathy will be discovered. There will never be a cry of "Come back, Theresa!" but it may nevertheless be that all will be very quickly forgiven.

Irish Independent

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