Diss-May. The manifest inadequacy of the outgoing Prime Minister
I come to bury Theresa May. She leaves the highest political office in the land with no achievements to her name. The country is more divided than when she took office. Its economy is faltering. She has found no resolution to Brexit, the task for which she was appointed Prime Minister. She has completely failed.
Mrs May might reasonably argue that the task was immense. So it was. She has made it worse.
The tragedy is that she understood part, but not all, of the task at hand. She saw correctly that the referendum result needed to be honoured in the spirit as well as the letter. To that end, she painstakingly identified the parameters of the result: the need to leave the single market; and the need to have the power to control immigration.
What she did not see, however, was the need to forge a consensus. The nation had just been split almost exactly in two by the question. It was divided and passions ran deep. As urgent a priority as finding the right path for Brexit was the need to get the country pulling in the same direction again. That required an attempt to get views from across the political spectrum.
This might have been attempted in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most obvious would have been a Royal Commission, with terms of reference set to ensure that the Commission report would produce a recommended approach consistent with the referendum result. (This would have required politicians across the political spectrum either to dip their hands in the blood or to consign themselves to carping from the sidelines.) That would have taken time. With the benefit of hindsight, however, the country needed some time out, not least to determine how to plan how to approach discussions with the EU. The EU would have benefited from a time-out too.
Would this have worked? Honestly, I’m doubtful. The deceitful xenophobia of the Leave campaign had left a large chunk of the Remain vote regarding the result as lacking moral legitimacy. That would have been very hard to overcome. Just as hard to overcome would have been the empty nihilism of most Leavers who knew that they hated the EU viscerally but had no concept of where they might compromise in order to secure any positive aims, because they didn’t really have any. But it would have been worth a try.
Instead, Theresa May sought to settle Brexit singlehandedly. At a time when the country needed to be inclusive, she sought to impose. She did not have the strength of will or the breadth of vision.
Mrs May compounded the mistake with her approach to language. When she condemned those who saw themselves as citizens of the world as “citizens of nowhere”, many doubting Remain voters mentally checked out from a project that was evidently going to be designed to exclude them.
She did nothing to stop talk of saboteurs, traitors, enemies of the people and quislings among Leavers. This talk simultaneously pushed Remain voters to see this as a project that could never be for them and pulled Leavers further to the extremes.
A well-timed intervention from the top could have reasserted a civic unity. But she simply did not see the need and the drift to two tribes only accelerated.
Most seriously, when Theresa May announced that no deal was better than a bad deal, she legitimised the idea of no deal Brexit (an idea that she evidently thought was terrible because she did nothing to prepare for it) and she bolstered the expectations of hardline Leavers that they had nothing to compromise on.
This made it easy, as the outlines of the deal unfurled, for her hardline Leave opponents to label it as a sell-out. Since she had done her level best to exclude anyone who had voted Remain from having any sense of shared purpose in the process, she got no support there.
As you sow, so shall you reap. Having effectively told Leavers that they need not compromise and having told Remainers that the terms were going to be dictated to them, Theresa May found that a compromise that required selling had no buyers.
So by December 2018, Theresa May had clearly failed in her appointed task of obtaining a Brexit deal that the country could live with. She then made her most unforgivable mistake. Having clearly failed, she did not change course and she did not resign. She squatted in Downing Street, acting as an active impediment to finding other resolutions. She consciously ran the country out of options in an attempt to reverse her failure.
Her deal, however, was dead in December. It is now July. Those seven months have driven the country still further to extremes. The talk is of no deal Brexit (perhaps secured by suspending Parliament) or of revoking the referendum decision (perhaps without a fresh vote). No one talks of compromise. This is her legacy.
Theresa May is not a bad woman. She evidently has a strong sense of public duty. She was, however, wholly inadequate to the task she had been given. The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones. So it will be with Theresa May.