I first christened Theresa May ‘The Maybot’ after an interview she had given on a trade mission to India in November last year. Even by her own low standards it was a car crash. ‘Have you made any plans for a Brexit transitional deal?’ inquired a Sky News reporter.
Whirr. Clunk. Clang. The Maybot’s eyes rotated into life. ‘I’m focusing on delivering Article 50,’ she replied, unable to prevent herself from answering an entirely different question. Inside the Maybot, the last shards of the real Theresa were fighting to get out. She was not a number. Especially not 350 million. She was a person in her own right. She did still have a mind of her own. Then the malware took over again.
For several months after she had become prime minister, Theresa May had managed to get along by repeating ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’ whenever she was questioned about when Britain would be leaving the EU, and on what terms. Some, eager to believe that Brexit was going to be an unmitigated triumph and that May was entirely in command of the situation, took ‘Brexit means Brexit’ to mean something profound. Others began to suspect that her brain had been hacked and she had been reduced to repeating mindless slogans.
Thereafter The Maybot stuck. It seemed to encapsulate both her awkward, disengaged manner and her inner mediocrity. Far from being a strong leader, she appeared weak and confused. While the rightwing press in the UK were building her up as a tough negotiator, I could only imagine the 27 EU countries rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of doing business with her.
The rise of The Maybot had begun as a process of elimination. Throughout the EU referendum campaign David Cameron had insisted he would stay on as prime minister regardless of the result; but within hours of Britain voting to leave, Dave headed for the hills. Almost immediately, several Tories starting eyeing up the main chance in what would turn out to be a race to the bottom. Boris Johnson never even made it to the starting line after his fellow Vote Leave frontman, Michael Gove, had overnight decided to run for party leader. Stephen Crabb and Liam Fox were knocked out in the first round, Crabb because no one knew who he was and Fox because everyone knew exactly who he was. Gove fell at the next hurdle, leaving a straight fight between Andrea Leadsom and May.
After Leadsom’s disastrous ‘As a mother’ interview with the Times, the leadership race was over before it had even really got going and Theresa May became prime minister by default. Just as in the referendum campaign, where she had remained largely mute, May’s success owed as much to her silence as anything else.
When May had made her first speech as prime minister outside Downing Street she had talked of governing in the interests of all those who had been left behind and felt disengaged from the political process. And that was just about the last anyone would hear of that, as one subject came to dominate the agenda. Brexit. And Brexit only ever seemed to spur her into more and more soundbites.
Throughout all of this the Maybot had at least been clear on one thing. Seven times she had been asked if she was going to call a general election and seven times she had said no. And then, over Easter, she changed her mind. She said it had been as a result of a conversation with her husband, Philip, but no one believed that for a second. Everyone knew that the Maybot was controlled by Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. It was they who had spotted the Tories were consistently 20 points ahead of Labour in the polls and decided to go for the kill.
They had reckoned without the vote-losing properties of the Maybot. Right from the beginning of the campaign, the Maybot went into full automaton mode. She refused to take part in any TV debates and she was kept well away from the public at every opportunity. Soon it wasn’t just me who was calling her the Maybot. It was her own advisers, cabinet members and almost every media outlet. Including the foreign press.
It still took time for her support to haemorrhage. The turning point came with the launch of the manifesto in Halifax. Within a matter of days, she was forced to do a U-turn on the dementia tax while also trying to downplay axing winter fuel payments and free school dinners.
There were belated attempts to reboot the Maybot, but to all intents and purposes Maybot 2.0 looked much the same as Maybot 1.0. Despite this, it still came as a surprise to everyone, not least the Labour party, that she managed to actually lose seats at the general election. Instead of returning to Westminster with a landslide majority as had been expected, she was left to try and form a minority government.
Not that anyone appeared to have told the Maybot the election result. Either that or she was trapped in the first phase of election grief: denial. There had been no election. She hadn’t blown a 20-point lead in the opinion polls in just over seven weeks. She hadn’t just run the worst campaign in living memory. She hadn’t published a manifesto that had needed to be pulped before the ink was dry. Everything was normal.
‘I will now form a government,’ the Maybot had murmured in a catatonic monotone outside Number 10. ‘A government that can provide certainty and lead Britain forward at this critical time for our country.’ Government. Certainty. Forward. Not the three words that were on anyone else’s tongue. It was as if she had been awoken from a seven-week cryogenic state and had decided to mix things up just for the hell of it. Strong and stable.
The Tory party were quick to remind her of the new realities. Nick and Fiona were kicked out of No. 10 and The Maybot was forced to do a grubby deal with the DUP. The Maybot would be allowed to continue on sufferance; primarily because there weren’t any obviously more capable candidates. Besides which, no one in their right mind would take over the party when there was a strong possibility Brexit would be a two year – and counting – nightmare.
The Maybot’s punishment would be to remain as prime minister. To be humiliated and pitied during European council meetings at which her only real friends were the pot plants. In just a year, the Maybot had imploded entirely. A year in which her true mediocrity had been exposed.
I, Maybot: The Rise and Fall by John Crace is out now (Guardian Faber, £9.99)