Theresa May. Remember her? She only stepped down as Conservative party leader on Friday and already the palpitating national fever dream of her three-year premiership is fading into sepia-tinged nostalgia. Last night’s official announcement of the ten uniformly unfit contenders to replace her (with the exception of the able but doomed Rory Stewart) merely cements the wistfulness. Already we long for the halcyon days when our prime minister would not shout at a taxi driver to ”fuck off and die” or dismiss resources to investigate historic child abuse as ”money spaffed up the wall” (Boris Johnson), or liken pro-EU economists to Nazi scientists and declare we’d had enough of experts anyway (Michael Gove), or simply forget his wife’s nationality and compare our closest allies to Soviet prison guards (Jeremy Hunt).
It is no doubt with this in mind that the urgent reappraisal of May has now begun. As the Tory candidates were launching their campaigns yesterday, journalist John Rentoul tweeted that May ”wasn’t that bad, actually, was she?”. Only the answer is yes, John. Yes she emphatically was. Just because the Tory leadership candidates have, in the space of two weeks, shifted the Overton window of mediocrity beyond even the most credible outer limit of the Dunning-Kruger effect, it does not make the lonely figure they leave behind any less cowardly, dishonest or straightforwardly dismal.
Let’s cast to one side May’s hostile environment, pioneered while she was home secretary, which drove the state abuse, dehumanisation and deportation of both innocent migrants and British citizens, and which became a problem for the prime minister only when it spoiled her big moment hosting the Commonwealth leaders whose countries those unfortunate people had come from. Let’s generously overlook the mishandling of Universal Credit, soaring use of food banks and grinding misery of austerity which she did nothing to alleviate. Let’s even pretend not to notice the magnetic field of anti-charisma propelling the purest absence of imagination, intellectual curiosity, personal charm or empathy, or her steadfast inability to listen or to build consensus, or her resolute failure to persuade, engage or talk candidly or interestingly on any subject whatsoever.
Let’s rather focus on one subject alone. Our country’s beginning and end, the British polity’s raison d’etre, and the phenomenon which catapulted May into Downing Street and then dumped her out of it again: Brexit.
Let’s talk about the 2016 Tory party conference, when May lied about immigration driving down wages, slandered citizens of the world as ‘citizens of nowhere’, and dictated the timetable for Article 50 while insisting that she alone, and not our troublesome elected representatives, would have the right to trigger it. (Her government had to be dragged through the courts to give that control back to parliament.) Let’s discuss the months she refused to explicitly rule out deporting EU nationals. Or the time journalists begged her to explain the biggest change in our politics since the war and she simply replied Brexit would be ‘red, white and blue’. Or her Lancaster House speech in January 2017, when she threatened the EU with no-deal and suggested Britain could become a hostile neighbour undercutting it for business. That saddled us with the slogan ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, which contaminates our national conversation to this day and could yet lead us to ruin. Or how about the day she called an entirely unnecessary general election, three months into a strict two-year negotiating period? On that occasion, first she lied that a naked power grab was in fact an attempt to shore up the national interest in the negotiating chamber. Then, in an unhinged storm of paranoia, she took to the steps of Downing Street to accuse the EU of trying to influence the result.
Let’s think about the debasement of public discourse that happened on May’s watch. The prime minister didn’t even have the guts to condemn the Daily Mail when it directly emulated the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter and branded sitting judges ‘enemies of the people’. Then when a Tory councillor called for Remainers to be tried for treason, Downing Street simply commented that ”different people will choose their words differently”. Like Donald Trump, May tolerated despicable behaviour in public life because it suited her politically, and she lacked the integrity to stand up for anything more decent.
Even now, some of May’s opponents affirm that she tried to act in the national interest. How exactly? By appointing as her first foreign secretary the laziest and most untrustworthy man in England, universally detested in Brussels? Boris Johnson’s career was in ruins in July 2016, and May single-handedly resurrected it. What about her sycophantic kow-towing to Trump in his first days in office, offering him a state visit with unprecedented speed just to show that post-Brexit Britain could negotiate a trade deal? Then there was the time she told public service workers that there was no ‘magic money tree’, but a couple of weeks later found it in full bloom when it came to bribing ten hardliners from Northern Ireland to keep her in power.
Like a conventional dictator, May conflated the national interest with her personal one. She alone would be responsible for deciding what it was and then executing it. She replaced any pragmatism with zeal. Services – the lifeblood of the economy – no longer mattered. Reducing migration did. Ending foreigners’ freedom of movement was more important than preserving Britons’ livelihoods, and May privileged leaving the EU’s single market over guaranteeing the UK’s economic integrity. She wholeheartedly promoted the idea that we had lost control of our money, borders and laws when in fact we had always preserved that control and under her stewardship were about to hand it to the EU.
As May settled upon her goals, the pound tanked, foreign companies scrambled to withdraw, and the UK became an international punchline. All the while, the prime minister seemed more embarrassed by abandoning an arbitrary deadline than by potentially plunging the country into medicine shortages and martial law. In the end she had to be dragged to Brussels kicking and screaming to request an extension whose necessity was obvious months and indeed years beforehand.
Consider the actions of a prime minister in May’s position who genuinely cared about the national interest. They would have recognised the gravity of the situation from the beginning, and used their political capital to start telling necessary truths and building inevitable compromises. They would have spent months drawing up a comprehensive plan for triggering Article 50, found out exactly what was achievable and in what time frame. They would have used good faith to craft dialogues, alliances and back-up plans. They would have squared with voters and MPs alike.
May refused to do any of this. She interpreted the result in the most damaging way available to her, triggered the formal process much too early, and didn’t bother to educate herself about any of it until after the talks had begun. Where she could have told the truth, she instead branded any moderate compromise as betrayal. Where she could have defeated the hardline Brexiters with her superior power, she instead aligned herself with them time and time again, even when it was clear she could never placate them and they would eventually turn on her. Where she could have shown leadership and courage, she instead failed to tell any Leavers that they would lose out, either because she didn’t know or didn’t want to know. Neither was good enough.
Each action was conceived and implemented in a bunker insulated from reality. When problems struck, May simply pretended they didn’t exist or manufactured a short-term fix to take her to the end of that particular week. Her government resembled a household which knew their home was on fire, but had spent so much time calming themselves down that they had forgotten to evacuate it.
Month after month, May refused to acknowledge the obstacles in front of her. She ignored Ireland completely for the first year of her premiership until she lost a general election and had to bribe one of its political parties. She signed up to the backstop then spent the following year denying what it meant. She promised she would not attempt to cherry-pick the single market and then announced the Chequers deal which did just that. Like a Tudor queen, she attempted to bypass parliament at every step, and led the first government in modern times to be held in contempt of it. She consistently failed to display political judgement, and at any given moment would make the wrong call and attack the wrong people. Every statement and decision was suffused with inflexibility and incompetence. She doubled down on obsessive secrecy when the country desperately needed lucid transparency.
In office May became a compulsive liar. She lied that we would have a trade deal ready to implement in March 2019, when in June 2019 the multiple-year negotiations for it have not even begun. She lied that the backstop did not include a customs union, and lied about our freedom to sign trade deals while participating in it. She denied that we would enter into a transition, or pay a significant divorce bill, or continue free movement after 2019, even though it soon became obvious to anyone with a passing interest in politics, history or reality. She insisted, Trump-style, that her government’s statistics did not show Brexit would make us less prosperous (they did), and that there was a Brexit dividend she could spend on the NHS (there wasn’t). May must have known she would eventually have to climb down and admit the defeat of each lie, but each time she simply replaced it with something else. By the time she stopped lying, it was too late to tell the truth.
People sometimes act as though Theresa May was forced into this, or remained for so long out of a sense of duty. The reality seems far more banal. The prime minister was simply crippled by hubris from the start. As soon as she took power, senior officials reported that she haughtily dismissed their advice (and frequently their facts) on the grounds that she had negotiated an EU opt-out while home secretary, and they had not. She refused to concede a scrap of personal responsibility even when her deal was defeated over and over again, including by the largest margin in parliamentary history. Her response was always the same: blame MPs, blame the EU, and stick to the script that had already confounded her. Her most famous gaffe became her only abiding mantra: nothing would change. Other prime ministers had resigned for a tenth of the humiliation, but May seemed to convince herself she possessed both the political skills and parliamentary majority of Tony Blair. Sadly for her, nobody else could enter the elaborate make-believe world which had become her permanent cocoon.
Why did she do it? Did she enjoy any of it? In the end you wonder if she even knew. May seemed convulsed by a pathological need to see a task through, even though it was patently obvious it could only end in disaster for both her and the country. All that came to matter was preserving her own job. Each day she marched on, an isolated Duracell bunny hauling the country she professed to love towards an economic and political precipice. She sacrificed both her country and party at the altar of self-interest and in the end succumbed to that too. Underneath the outward respectability, she and Brexit had become the same thing: an object study in personal and national nihilism.
The worst of all this is that her colleagues have not learnt a single lesson from it. Like May, the leadership contenders pretend they can defy political, legal and technological reality. They refuse, as she did, to spell out the choice between economic suffering and undemocratic rule-taking. Like her, they cannot be honest with the electorate because they cannot be honest with themselves.
The Tory membership will now have to choose our next prime minister from a clown, David Brent and a xenophobic cardboard box. It scarcely matters. The disaster will be theirs just as firmly as it was May’s. They will probably fail just as spectacularly. But even in the worst moments of what awaits us, never forget just how much May destroyed in so little time, for so little reason and for so little gain. The memory of her execrable and unforgivable premiership will outlive us all.
Jonathan Lis is deputy director of the pro-EU think tank British Influence and a political writer and commentator.
The opinions in Politics.co.uk’s Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.