Don’t even feel a bit sorry for Theresa May

The Irish Times, Fintan O’Toole

16.03.19

Theresa May always made much of her devotion to the cricketer Geoffrey Boycott. She campaigned unsuccessfully for the former England and Yorkshire batsman to be awarded a knighthood and implicitly compared herself to him: “I have been a Geoff Boycott fan all my life. It was just that he kind of solidly got on with what he was doing.”

But while this idea of modelling herself on Boycott’s dogged, undemonstrative persistence at the wicket seems to capture May’s own qualities, it has one big flaw. Boycott actually scored the runs.

His relentless piling up of unspectacular incremental gains was rewarded with centuries on the scoreboards and victories for his teams. He may have been boring and metronomic but he won matches.

May has shown all of her hero’s persistence, grit and dullness. But she has lost more dramatically than any previous British prime minister. She managed to be “not out” for a remarkably long time, but she was never really in.

Perhaps, if we really must have a sporting simile for Theresa May, we have to look to a different code. It seems apt that her father and grandfather grew up in Wimbledon and that she began both her married life and her political career as a Tory councillor there.

For May is perhaps the political equivalent of one of those English players who was going to end at last the long drought of home victories at Wimbledon and make English tennis great again.

They would be hyped up far beyond their merits and promoted to Centre Court, their matches simulcasted onto giant screens where the fans could see shots of Cliff Richard and some minor royals cheering them on from the arena. They would be carried along on a wave of patriotic enthusiasm to the later rounds of the tournament where they would hit four double faults in a row to lose the decisive set. May was never the Geoff Boycott of British politics, always the Tim Henman.

As she was pleading for her withdrawal deal and for her political life in the House of Commons on Tuesday, with the Tory benches behind her only half full, her hoarse voice sepulchral and faltering, it was possible to feel great sympathy for May.

She looked and sounded so harried and hollowed-out that it seemed as if all the accumulated humiliations and frustrations she had suppressed for two years with such remarkable powers of denial had risen up to take possession of her at last.

If there is anything to admire in May it is that she has carried on, and here she was, doing it again, even in what must have been the knowledge of certain and this time possibly terminal defeat.

But May is not solid, merely stolid. “Dull” and “reliable” tend to go together. In May’s case, though, they have never been conjoined twins. It is easy to think that just as visually impaired people are supposed to have sharper hearing, a lack of charisma must be compensated for by rocklike reliability.

May, indeed, always tried to make a virtue of this necessity, to suggest somehow that her lack of charm and absence of magnetism proved that she must be, in the mantra that defined her disastrous 2017 general election campaign, “strong and stable”.

But in fact May has proved, under pressure, to be wildly unreliable, forever making commitments and sealing deals only to unmake and unseal them again. She turned out to be that most unfortunate political hybrid: dull and unreliable.

The dullness matters, not because charm is much of a virtue, but because in her case it amounted to a deadly lack of imagination. May’s world is intensely narrow.

She is not so much a Little Englander as a Little Southeast-of-Englander. She is imaginatively bound within a little square: the pretty Oxfordshire villages where she grew up in her father’s vicarages, Oxford University, the City of London and Westminster.

When she went up to Oxford from grammar school, she was travelling less than 10 miles from her parents’ home. She met her husband Philip at an Oxford University Conservative Association disco. They were married by May’s own father.

She went straight from Oxford to a job in the Bank of England. Her husband also worked in the City. In 1995, when she was 39, she was selected for the safe Tory seat of Maidenhead, so safe that even in the Tony Blair landslide of 1997, she was elected to parliament with more than 50 per cent of the vote.

She moved to Sonning, a village on the Thames described by Jerome K Jerome in Three Men in a Boat as “the most fairy-like little nook on the whole river”. Jimmy Page and George and Amal Clooney are local residents – gritty it is not.

This lack of experience of a wider world matters. For one thing, it left May with a deep distrust of immigrants. If there is a defining question of May’s career in the British Home Office and as prime minister, it is immigration.

It was the issue on which she fell out with her principle internal enemy, the then chancellor George Osborne. It was May who promised to create a “hostile environment” for undocumented migrants. She was largely responsible for the appalling Windrush scandal in which elderly Caribbean migrants who had made long lives in Britain were harassed and in some cases deported.

It was under May’s Home Office regime that the disastrous doctrine of reducing annual net migration to the “tens of thousands” was promulgated.

It should not be forgotten that this unattainable goal was a big factor in Brexit – it created a false narrative that immigration could be slashed and the only reason it was rising was because of freedom of movement in the EU. It also created the sense among voters that everything was out of control. May did not actually support Brexit but in this regard she did much to create the conditions for it.

Just as importantly, when she became prime minister, she prioritised immigration over everything else. It was the deepest crimson of all her red lines and it shaped the withdrawal agreement more than any other factor. And what it betrayed was a visceral mistrust of people who, unlike herself, are not “rooted”.

When, at the height of her hubris in 2016, she railed that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means”, the cosiness of her enclosed worldview showed its nasty obverse side. Dullness, in the sense of a lack of curiosity about people from beyond one’s own circle of experience, shades easily into the rhetoric of exclusion.

May’s surface sheen of colourless efficiency also hid something else. She doesn’t look like an obsessional monomaniac. But she is one. What she was always obsessed with was political power.

May decided when she was 12 that she was going to be an MP (it went without saying that this meant a Tory MP). By the age of 17, she had upped her ambition – she told her schoolmates and cousins that she intended to become prime minister.

Her college friends at Oxford remembered her open irritation when Margaret Thatcher got to 10 Downing Street and so deprived May of her goal of being the first woman to hold the office.

This is not normal. There is something deeply odd about a child who decides in all seriousness that her project is to become prime minister, not as a passing fancy but as a life plan. The robotic quality for which May was so often mocked is really a machinelike focus on a single goal: to become and remain prime minister.

And this, too, has had a profound effect on the course of Brexit. In the 2016 referendum campaign, it was obvious that May was fixated, not on what was best for her country, but on how she might exploit the opportunity if David Cameron was defeated. She said the minimum necessary to support Remain while signalling to the Leavers that her heart wasn’t in it.

It was a breathtakingly cynical calculation driven by a raging lust for power – no less reprehensible, if somewhat more devious, than Boris Johnson’s more overt cynicism.

And, of course, it paid off. When Johnson and Michael Gove did their Laurel and Hardy act and pushed each other off the ladder, May ascended it by default. But once in the highest office her overwhelming priority was to stay there.

People mistake her willingness to endure humiliation for a lack of ego but her essential egocentricity was manifested, not just in the desire for a suitably massive Commons majority that lured her into calling an entirely unnecessary election in 2017 but in the weird conduct of that campaign as a cult of personality built around a leader who didn’t have one.

This prioritisation of her own grip on office has shaped the whole Brexit debacle. May was certainly faced with an extremely difficult task, but she could have done it differently. She could have thought about how to bring together a divided country and limit the damage to people’s lives and livelihoods.

Instead she focused relentlessly, and with all that stubborn persistence, on her own life and livelihood. She directed Brexit entirely around the path of least resistance, which lay firstly through telling the zealots what they wanted to hear and, after the 2017 election, through keeping the DUP sweet as well.

She tried to stay in power by telling everyone – including at times the EU and the Irish Government – what they wanted to hear. The inevitable result was not so much heroic endurance as a blind determination to keep muddling on even as the Brexit deadline she herself had set got ever closer.

May does not, then, quite cut it as a tragic figure. She had the overweening ambition of a mini-Macbeth, and, like him, she was destroyed by the attainment of the very power she craved. But she ended up much more as a sad servant than a tragic master. She gradually became a political paradox: a leader held in office only by her willingness to endure the disrespect, defiance and disobedience of those she supposedly led.

Declaring her candidacy for the Tory leadership in June 2016, May defined herself as “the daughter of a local vicar and the granddaughter of a regimental sergeant major”.

She did not mention that both of her grandmothers were maids in Victorian big houses and that her other grandfather was a butler. The public persona she tried to project was somewhere between the vicar and the sergeant major, at once moral guide to her nation and creator of good order in the ranks.

But she ended up much more like a servant in the crazy, rambling, neo-Gothic big house of Brexit, endlessly trying to tidy away its mad clutter of contradictions, polishing its hopelessly tarnished silver and trying to be Jeeves to its absurd Bertie Woosters.

In the end, for serving such a bad cause so relentlessly, her ignominy serves her right.