Please, no, not Theresa May. Theresa the technocrat, who doesn’t do ideology, passion or even gossip, would be the worst PM for Britain right now. Post-Brexit Britain, where politics has become interesting again, after 17.5m souls gave an otherworldly establishment just the fright it needed, needs a leader who is properly political, up for debate, and maybe even a ruck. Not May, not this apolitical politician, not this woman who says ‘I will get the job done’ as if she’s applying for a position in HR rather than Downing Street. Having May run Brexit Britain would be like having a bank manager referee a Mike Tyson fight.
You can tell a lot about May from how she talks. She speaks in CVese. That bureaucratic lingo we all use when writing a CV, simultaneously self-promoting and wooden, because we want our potential employer to think we’re competent but not up ourselves, is how May talks all the time. Look at the interview with her in yesterday’s Evening Standard. ‘Whatever job it is I’m doing at the time, [I’ve always] given it my best shot’, she says. ‘I put my all into it’, she continues. ‘“Just get on with it” and “do the best I can” are messages that came from my parents’, she says. I half expected her to finish with: ‘I also like playing tennis, travelling, and reading books. I have three A-levels.’
Where’s the zap? The fire? The ideology? If May believes in anything — beyond getting the job done — she keeps it well hidden. The more we learn about her, the clearer it becomes that her famous kitten heels do not point to a latent sparky personality but rather are a substitute for one. Like the school headmistress who wears zany Su Pollard specs in a desperate bid to offset her innate conservatism, May opts for leopard spots in the hope of convincing us there’s a firebrand beneath the bland exterior. But there isn’t.
There are two reasons May ain’t right for the job of running Brexit Britain. The first: she profoundly misunderstands Brexit. Apparently having read one too many snotty anti-Brexit Guardian or Times columns, she’s decided that Brits voted out of the EU because they hate migrants. So she’s promising to get tough on EU migrants, even threatening to use them as bargaining chips in her deal-making with Brussels, fancying that this will win vigorous nods of approval from Sun-reading Europhobes.
Bad move. Leavers aren’t xenophobes. A survey has found that 84 percent of Brits want EU nationals to be allowed to stay in the UK. The idea that Leavers are an anti-migrant throng is a libel against the masses dreamt up in the metropolitan bubble. That May seems to believe it says a lot about how stuck in that bubble she is, and how little she knows the people.
The second reason May’s wrong for Brexit Britain is because she lacks what this new, post-EU nation needs: politics; ideas; vision. Brexit did something amazing: it awakened politics from its slumber, from its anaesthetisation by the Third Way technocrats. For years now, especially under Blair, Brown and Cameron, big political questions have been buried by a new post-politics elite that thinks running the country is a technical task akin to running a school. But Brexit, this great, historic traipsing of a vast swathe of the electorate to the voting booths to say No to the status quo, No to EU technocracy and No to the idea that there is no alternative, has blown that all apart.
It unleashed history’s unresolved political questions, about sovereignty, democracy, class, about the splitting of Britain into Two Nations, as Disraeli described it more than 150 years ago. It’s reminded us that that stuff is all still there, under the surface, unsettled, seething, crying out for someone to address it and debate it and confront it. And who do we get as the next likely PM? A politician who eschews politics. A leader who is allergic to ideology. A technocrat who thinks politics is a job to be done rather than a battle to be had out. May threatens to be the grey, heavy lid on the unfinished business of politics that Brexit gave us a glimpse of; the damp cloth on the nation’s fires.
The rise of May speaks to the cult of competence. We’ve become obsessed with elevating politicians who are a ‘safe pair of hands’. Any politician who exhibits even a hint of idealism — be it Boris, Farage or Corbyn — is mauled, denounced as a demagogue, instructed to come into the middle of the road with the rest of us. Things have become so bad that the word ‘moderate’ is now used as a compliment rather than an insult. Everyone wants to be a moderate. Enough. Down with the moderates. Brexit Britain needs some radicals — and no, Ms May, having once had a tough meeting with a leading policeman does not make you a radical.