Is Theresa May an excellent PM surrounded by bullying men ...
I wish half the politicians in parliament would display her dignity, her courtesy and her sense of service
Three years ago, prior to the Tory leadership contest that never was, I wrote about why I’d pick Theresa May as the UK’s next prime minister. Steely, determined and a devoted public servant, she was, I wrote, a safe pair of hands, perfectly placed to unite the warring Tory tribes.
How wrong I was.
Since then, the Conservative Party has arguably become more divided than ever, while in her hands Brexit – one of the most important challenges of her leadership – has turned into a chaotic mess to which there seems no end in sight.
Since taking office, May has triggered Article 50 before working out what kind of Brexit Britain wanted, called and failed to decisively win a general election, putting her in the untenable position of being at the mercy of the Democratic Unionist Party, and seen her government defeated in the House on 27 occasions, four of which have been the heaviest defeats in post-war parliamentary history. Now she has been defeated yet again: her withdrawal deal, in attempting to please everyone, pleased no one, leaving the country, once again, in limbo, rudderless and seemingly without direction.
Everything that I once admired about May – her indefatigability, her inscrutability, her tireless attention to detail – turned out to have been woeful for the country. Even someone who is “not a quitter” should know when to step aside; a sphinx-like nature can do untold damage when everyone is kept in the dark as a result and there is, it turns out, a fine line between being bloody difficult and bloody minded.
And yet despite all that, I feel for Theresa May.
“I got us into this mess,” she said after the election, “and I’m going to get us out.” Okay, so we’re not out of the mess by a long shot, but May has kept at it when others would have quit – which she would have doubtless been roundly criticised for doing – long ago. You can think her deal is awful, the worst of all worlds, and pleases nobody, while still recognising that in drawing it up she has been trying to please as many people as possible, simultaneously dealing with the monumentally intransigent Brussels bureaucrats: it is almost the definition of the politics of compromise on which Britain has historically run.
Surrounded by braying, bullying, backstabbing, game-playing men making no attempt to hide their naked desire to fill her shoes; having to negotiate with the other set of bullying, braying, backstabbing men on the Continent, she has quietly kept doing what she does: attending local events in her constituency, going to church every Sunday, standing up on that podium yet again to make yet another statement without once shouting, losing her temper or going swivel-eyed in an attempt to get her point across.
This, I believe, is the real Theresa May: the public servant motivated by a strong sense of what she believes to be her duty, giving little of her personal self away, putting her head down and getting on with it. It may not have been the perfect strategy as prime minister during one of the most turbulent political times in modern British history – in fact, it has doubtless contributed heavily to that turbulence (putting your head down is one thing, refusing to listen to advice is another; giving little away can tend towards the robotic) – but when I look at the rest of the politicians in parliament, I wish that half of them would display her dignity, her courtesy and her sense of service.
I wonder if any of them would have done a better job in such fantastically difficult circumstances. Only time will tell whether May has messed this one up completely. But in the rush to criticise the mistakes, let’s not utterly condemn the person who made them.
• Lucy Denyer is assistant comment editor at The Daily Telegraph.
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