... or is she just a useless leader who should be dumped ASAP?
She is not just a poor communicator and bad negotiator, she has failed to build cross-party unity
A few days after the June 2017 general election, Theresa May addressed her MPs at Westminster, still as prime minister but no longer with a parliamentary majority. She had contemplated resignation, but an overwhelming sense of duty possessed her.
“I’m the one who got us into this mess and I’m the one who will get us out of it,” she told them.
After Tuesday night’s debacle in the Commons, they are entitled to ask: So how did that go? Her defeat is the greatest humiliation ever inflicted on a prime minister and should make her continuation in office untenable.
For goodness’ sake, in 1940 Neville Chamberlain won by 80 votes, yet felt obliged to stand down because so many in his own party had opposed him. Yet even as she surveyed the wreckage of her Brexit policy in the Commons last night, May was intent on carrying on, apparently without humility, despite having lost by an astonishing 230 votes.
This is, frankly, incredible. Her authority has gone, yet she still thinks she is the only person who can find a way out of a mess that she has herself created. She cannot see what others can – that she is the obstacle to securing and delivering Brexit.
So far, the absence of an obvious alternative leader and the difficulty of framing a strategy able to get through parliament have kept May in place. She has been like El Cid – tied to the saddle, but lifeless. How in all conscience can she stay aboard?
Few would question May’s extraordinary stamina, remarkable given her type 1 diabetes, a condition that requires careful management and that can be exacerbated by stress. Who in the country has been under greater strain these past two years? No one would gainsay her resilience, nor doubt that she has always believed she was acting in the national interest. Those qualities were evident in her speech winding up the eight-day Brexit debate. But rarely in British history has a leader been so ill-fitted to the monumental scale of the task confronting them.
Eden in 1956, Chamberlain in 1940, Asquith in 1916 – all faltered in the face of crisis and were pushed out of No 10 as their inadequacies were exposed. May, more inadequate than any, clings to office with an almost messianic belief in her right to occupy it. True, she inherited a set of difficult circumstances, but at almost every turn she has made the wrong call. This is an unholy mess made in Downing Street, nowhere else.
In her first party conference speech as leader in October 2016, May announced the date for triggering Article 50 without consulting the cabinet or knowing whether the country would be ready by then. That was reckless. Then, instead of reaching out to other parties and seeking to make Brexit a national event, she turned it into a narrow partisan matter, to be argued about among Conservatives, to the exclusion of others and to the great detriment of her own party. She may, indeed, have wrecked it.
Partly, this was because she had been a Remainer who felt the need to overcompensate by becoming the most intractable of Brexiteers. Had Boris Johnson become leader in 2016, the victor taking the spoils, you could well have seen him reaching out to Remainers in an effort to construct a British Brexit. After all, this was not meant to be an internal Tory affair, even if David Cameron initially called the referendum to manage divisions in his own party. It was a binary national choice with many Tories voting to stay and Labour supporters opting to leave.
The Brexit process needed a leader capable of bridging the divide, not one intent on widening it.
Then came the greatest mistake of all. The snap general election of June 2017 was called in what seemed the most propitious of circumstances. The Tories were well ahead in the polls and a big majority was there for the taking, thereby giving May the room for manoeuvre she needed to avoid precisely the calamity she has ended up with. But she drew all the wrong conclusions from the election outcome.
At that fateful meeting with her MPs, May told them she intended to continue with the Brexit policy she had already decided upon and would not be knocked off course. Yet it was apparent to many that, without a majority, a cross-party approach had become essential, not least to reassure EU negotiators that the deal they reached with the UK government would not be rejected, as has now happened. We needed a leader able to look beyond party advantage and appeal to that somewhat unfashionable concept, the national interest. We didn’t get one.
Only at the 11th hour last night, after the historic defeat, did she pledge to “take parliament with us” by establishing a cross-party procedure. May has talked a great deal about building unity; but to do so on such a divisive issue required qualities of personality that she simply does not possess.
On the threshold of No 10, she promised “a country that works for everyone”, yet has presided over division and disunity. She could have developed an argument in favour of European Economic Area membership, rather than trap herself in a cul-de-sac of red lines from which there was no escape. Instead of the tribalist attrition that has torn the Tories apart, she could have brought the country together. But she was not equipped to do so.
The ill-starred general election campaign exposed what many Westminster insiders had known before she became prime minister, but few in the country appreciated: that May is simply an appalling communicator. If an ability to connect with others is an essential component of leadership then she has been bereft. Her most oft-used phrase was “Let me be clear”, yet clarity was the one thing always absent.
She has also proved to be a dreadful negotiator, agreeing at the outset to a timetable for talks that gave the EU side an immediate advantage, even when we held the strongest card of all, the money, but never played it. Now that the vote has been so emphatically lost, the crisis is finally upon us. May’s departure will not make it any easier to resolve; but for as long as she remains in No 10 the paralysis will continue.
Whether she wins or loses Wedneday’s no-confidence motion, for the good of the country, she must go.
– © The Daily Telegraph