Skip to Content

Coffee House

In defence of Theresa May

24 May 2019

12:31 PM

24 May 2019

12:31 PM

Pretty much all the bad things that people are saying today about Theresa May are true. She’s bad at politics, bad at communicating, bad at dealing with colleagues.

She created the conditions that made her job as prime minister handling Brexit almost impossible. Her ‘red lines’ in the autumn of 2016 gave Britain almost no room for manoeuvre and made the sort of cross-party consensus approach to Brexit that is the logical response to a 52:48 referendum result practically impossible.

Her 2017 general election cost her the Commons majority that might just have made that hardline approach viable. Her response was quintessentially Theresa May: she compromised on policy but not on politics.

When you hear people today scoffing that May didn’t do compromise, they’re wrong. She did compromise and in a very big way. She just didn’t tell anybody.

The Withdrawal Agreement she struck with the EU was – and is – the most reasonable and practical response Britain could hope for in the circumstances. It even reflects some negotiating wins for the UK.

It could and should have been the basis for consensus in the Commons, as an awful lot of MPs (including some who publicly oppose it) privately concede. I reckon that in a secret ballot it would pass the Commons quite easily.

The failure to pass the WA is the story of the May premiership: sensible choices and honourable intentions doomed by a failure of politics.

But that failure was not May’s alone. It also belongs to Conservative MPs who sought a Brexit far harder and purer than any that was discussed in 2016. It belongs too to the equally doctrinaire Remainers who would countenance no outcome that acknowledges the simple fact that our side lost the referendum – and lost because we lost the argument, not because the 17.4 million were stupid or racist or lied to or hypnotised by Russia and Facebook.

Here, the May critics counter that this, the radicalisation and polarisation of British politics, was her fault. She played the politics of the majority, hallowing the Will of the People. She stoked the culture war with ‘citizens of nowhere’. It’s all her fault.

But there are numerous flaws with that argument, not least that May was never that good. Her flaws as a communicator mean it’s absurd to say she created an entire political and cultural climate. Likewise when it comes to her colleagues’ stupidity and dishonesty. Yes, she said ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ but no-one had to believe her (and many did not). There is something deeply ignoble about people who know full well that no deal is an economic disaster advocating it and justifying themselves by saying ‘but Theresa May said it was OK’. And any analysis that explains the Conservative Party’s embrace of no deal solely by reference to May’s 2016 rhetoric is letting off the hook a lot of politicians who deserve proper scrutiny. She failed to stop her party becoming a death-cult, but she didn’t found the religion.

Her failure lay principally in her inability to fix things, not in breaking them.

What comes next, for the Tories and Britain and Brexit, will prove that Theresa May’s failures, like her premiership, were modest and second-tier. History will say relatively little about her tactical record, focussing instead on acts of grand strategic failure and their authors.

Meanwhile, David Cameron has a book out later this year.

Show comments