It took patience and some cunning for Theresa May to make it through two years in No 10by Alex Massie / July 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
The thing to remember is that Theresa May was not, and never could be, Andrea Leadsom. Not being Leadsom, whose ambition to lead the Conservative Party I am afraid remains undimmed, was enough to make May prime minister, but never quite enough to dispel the sense that she was an accidental premier and that this, in some nagging way, mattered.
They were the final two. David Cameron had impaled himself on Brexit, taking George Osborne with him. Stephen Crabb set fire to his own campaign before it properly began. Liam Fox was Liam Fox. And while Michael Gove’s knifing of Boris Johnson may be thought to have done the country some service, it came at the price of fatally wounding his own chances of moving into Downing Street.
Even then there was something equivocal about May’s candidacy. She was plainly the adult candidate, yet doubts persisted. She might be a “bloody difficult woman,” but would that, could that, really be enough? Imaginative Tories embraced the idea of a second Thatcher; those who knew her better spoke of a fundamentally unknowable politician. Perhaps there really was nothing there. Journalists complained she was the worst lunch in Westminster.
The vision thing, to say nothing of modern standards of empathy or communication, was an obvious problem. Weaknesses must be redefined as strengths, however. So a lack of flair was to be considered reassuring and May’s duty-burdened provincialism was reckoned a healthy contrast to Cameron’s smooth—and glib—metropolitan demeanour. There was a whiff of Gordon Brown following Tony Blair here; an echo of his “Not flash, just Gordon” slogan.
For a while it seemed to work. But weaknesses cannot be disguised as strengths forever. Sooner or later the truth escapes and, once loose, cannot be re-incarcerated out of sight and mind. The general election proved as much. The prime minister was reduced to the status of a walking platitude. “Brexit means Brexit.” “Strong and stable” government. This was no time for mucking about: “The timetable is clear. We need to be ready. We are.” Oh dear.
Even simple questions were treated as though they were secretly laced with arsenic; the prime minister’s reluctance to speak frankly—or with members of the public—began to look almost pathological, especially after the awkward reticence was exposed by the Grenfell fire.
No wonder Osborne chirped that having lost her majority, May was a “dead woman walking.” He might be motivated by malice but, in summer 2016, everyone else agreed with him. Despite all her travails, we therefore need to rate it as some sort of an achievement that into the summer of 2018 there was still a surprising amount of life in the dead woman.
Her surviving through to a second anniversary in No 10 in July rested on two factors: the lack of an obvious replacement; and the chaos into which a change of prime minister would throw the Brexit negotiations. They have, of course, been hampered by the prime minister’s own interpretation of what Brexit must mean. But, paradoxically, the painfully slow progress in the negotiations has only heightened the urgency, making her harder to dispatch. There have been moments during the last two years when May’s adversaries—inside the Tory Party as well as outside—have wondered whether the dead woman wasn’t actually some kind of zombie prime minister. Whatever else may be said of her, she is game. You sense she sometimes has to will herself to even attempt some of the things expected of prime ministers. But she staggered on, doing her bit. There is something quietly heroic about this.
There may be some cunning too. There have been times when I have wondered if the prime minister is a Tolstoyan. If, in particular, she has studied and drawn lessons from Mikhail Kutuzov, the great military hero of the 1812 campaign. “We can only lose by taking the offensive,” Tolstoy makes the general say. “Patience and time are my warriors, my champions.” Kutuzov has no time for those who demand “continual manoeuvres, continual advances.” These, he suggests, are fripperies and, worse, invitations to disaster. Russia is not yet ready to pursue an aggressive strategy against Napoleon’s invaders.
Those who ask Kutuzov to be more adventurous, to be bolder, and to take the initiative make the error of thinking fighting can be fun. “They are like children,” he says, “from whom one cannot get any sensible account of what has happened because they all want to show how well they can fight. But that’s not what is needed now.”
Patience and time. On the one hand, May has needed patience to allow for the delusional options proffered by her keenest Brexiters to be revealed as impossible. But time too, in terms of running the clock down until there is little chance of developing any alternative to her own plans. In politics, as in warfare, the general that commands time and space has the advantage.
I do not claim all of this happened according to plan, or that May is a strategic genius. She has fought a cautious, defensive campaign against much of her own party because she lacks manpower. To the extent she ever advanced at all, she has done so by crabbing sideways. That requires a certain kind of courage too. It might not be enough; but it might still be better than some of the alternatives. Because, even after two years, the same question applies: who else is there?