When John Curtice speaks, listen. That’s one thing we learned in the general election. This week we hosted John at the Social Market Foundation, where he explained just what actually happened on June 8. Among his many observations was that Jeremy Corbyn really had done something unprecedented: he changed the way voters saw him, for the better. In John’s view, no one has ever done this before. Public opinion of Corbyn was settled: he was useless. And voters, once they’ve decided you’re useless, don’t change their minds.
But they did. They still don’t think Corbyn is brilliant, but they don’t dismiss him the way they used to. The great Curtice brain holds no other example of such a change. Truly, we live in an age of miracles. If Jeremy Corbyn can rise from the depths, could another miracle deliver the resurrection of Theresa May?
The Prime Minister is, simply, in hell. Scorned by voters, ignored by colleagues, mocked by the press, shorn of her dignity and her closest aides, the talk in Tory circles is about her resolve and her morale, her willingness and ability to bear the strain much longer. Will she simply quit in despair, walk away from the pressure and the opprobrium? Some Tories, including some ‘friends of’ the likely replacements, are hoping so: resignation would be cleaner than assassination. They hope that after Grenfell, the ordeals that follow the painfully thin Queen’s Speech will persuade May that enough is enough and there’s only so much pressure and pain a person can take.
One aspect of May’s humiliation has been, I think, under-explored: gender. The fact that she is a woman matters, for several reasons. It is, I think, an implicit factor in the criticism levelled at her over Grenfell and her general demeanour. Some people, possibly unconsciously, simply expect a woman to be more overtly sympathetic, more emotional. Yet the costs of living up to that expectation could be high.
These are straws in the wind, but in the past week two female friends, both Labour-voting metropolitans who dislike May and her agenda, have suggested to me that ‘she can’t win’ because if she had cried in public over Grenfell, she’d have been written off as a weak and unstable woman, a dismissal that resonates uncomfortably with too many working women. Critics, Labour and Tory alike, enjoy calling May ‘weak’ but they might ponder the message sent, especially to female voters, by using that word about a woman in public life.
May’s gender is also a reason to think twice before writing her off or predicting she’ll quit. She is fantastically tough, as any woman who has reached her level in politics must be. By tough, I mean resilient, persistent, undeterred by rejection and criticism and abuse. All politicians get those, but it’s still worse for women – and it used to be much, much worse. In more than 20 years dealing with politicians of all sorts, the toughest I’ve ever met remains Harriet Harman, whose dauntless ability to shrug off abuse and rejection and keep powering on is close to awe-inspiring. There are mountain ranges with less resilience than ‘Harriet Harperson’.
May hasn’t quite had Harman’s brutally gruelling history, but she too came up the hard way – because until recently, there was no other way for women to make the political ascent. She entered the Commons in 1997, the nadir of modern Conservative fortunes. Her parliamentary career began in failure and ignominy. It’s also worth noting that the 1997 election returned just 120 female MPs, and just 13 of them were Tories. Will someone who has climbed from there to the peak, who has crawled over broken glass to reach her goal, really walk away because the job is difficult and you’ve made mistakes and people are saying hard words about you? I have my doubts.
Yes, she’s lost Nick and Fiona, but she’ll never lose Philip. The May marriage is formidable, and it means it is never wholly accurate to describe the Prime Minister as ‘isolated’. Power is lonely, but she is not, in the most important sense, alone in No 10. May’s survival is far from certain. The weeks before the summer recess will be long and awful, and the story of Theresa May as a broken leader may never change: everything she ever does may always be seen through the lens of failure.
But what if she does survive? What if she does stay the course over these next, dreadful weeks? Could a new story begin, a story of a woman who did not buckle, who did not yield? A woman who made mistakes but stuck around to answer for them and put them right. A woman who proved the men wrong. Telling that story would require many qualities and assets May might well lack, including a good deal of luck.
But it is a story that could hold some appeal for a nation that cherishes the underdog and that has, from Splendid Isolation to ‘Very well, alone’ and now Brexit, liked to imagine itself standing alone and defiant against all adversity. There’s a reason ‘He Who Would Valiant Be’ remains a favourite hymn: there’s no discouragement will make us once relent. If the PM, undoubtedly beset round with dismal stories, can show Britain she’s still a pilgrim, her story is not over.
This is not, I repeat, a prediction. I am not saying that Theresa May will survive to regain respect and even admiration. I am merely saying it is possible. Recent experience suggests we should all be wary of forecasting. But it also suggests we should also be wary of ruling out things just because they look impossible today.