When historians come to judge Theresa May and her downfall, what characteristic will they identify as her fatal flaw? There are so many to choose from. Will it be her intransigence? Her lack of empathy? Her presumption? Or her inability to understand what is required of her in any given situation?
On the basis of last week’s Downing Street speech, it could be all of the above, plus an unerring instinct for alienating even those who might, with a little sweet-talking, have been willing to support her.
But May doesn’t do sweet-talking; she doesn’t do cajoling. The only tactic she has at her disposal is to bark the same short soundbite in people’s faces as if she is a guest on I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue and has been asked to perform a Robert Halpern hypnotism routine in the style of K9. “Brexit is Brexit”; “Strong and Stable”; “I’m on your side”. Let’s just say the CIA’s psyops won’t be seeking her services any time soon.
What a terrible speech it was. Even in an age of Donald Trump’s ravings, it was so spectacularly misjudged you have to assume whoever wrote or sanctioned it was trying to bring her down from within.
Every word seemed calculated to antagonise. Instead of apologising for having twiddled her thumbs while Britain burned, she affected to be a woman of the people.
Some high-profile figures have a talent for that. Lorraine Kelly is so good at playing “the housewives’ favourite”, HMRC has taken a chunk off her tax bill. The way May has behaved since the referendum – cosying up to the DUP, calling a snap general election, running down the clock until March 29 – means she was never going to be anyone’s favourite, yet she appears to be oblivious to public hostility.
Despite all the headlines telling her to go, she regards herself as telepathically in tune with voters, and so qualified to make pronouncements on their behalf. “You have had enough of infighting and political games”, she intoned. “You are tired of MPs talking about nothing but Brexit”; “You are getting sleepy”. If only we could be lulled into a Rip Van Winkle-style slumber and not wake up until all this is over.
While trying (and failing) to curry favour with the public, she alienated everyone else: all the Conservative MPs whose votes she was trying to secure; the DUP, whose votes she had effectively paid £1bn to secure; the speaker, John Bercow; Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker. Oh, yes – and Uri Geller.
Geller, whose psychic powers have been “validated” by Mossad and the CIA, wrote an open letter telling May he planned to use those powers to prevent her taking Britain out of the EU. Nor would Jeremy Corbyn ever be Thane of Westminster. Phew, if Geller can bend fate the way he bends forks, we should be OK.
Just in case, though, let’s return to May and her speech. It contained not a trace of humility or embarrassment or acceptance of responsibility for the state we find ourselves in. Instead, she tried to turn the public against parliament. Given the Brexit vote took place in the shadow of MP Jo Cox’s murder this was so wilfully reckless, the act of contrition in her post-EU summit letter to parliament could not wipe the slate clean.
Former attorney general Dominic Grieve spoke for us all when he said he “could have wept”. No wonder Bercow, who ruled out a Meaningful Vote 3 on an identical deal and reassured MPs they weren’t traitors, found himself being eulogised, even though he looks way too much like a man cock-a-hoop at finding himself the centre of attention.
No wonder so many individuals set out to demonstrate that May didn’t speak for them by signing the Revoke Article 50 petition and turning out to the People’s Vote/Revocation march.
For every action May carries out, there is an equal and opposite (to what she intended) reaction. Every time she heads for the EU to hammer out a deal/demand an extension/give them what for, she finds herself marginalised and dictated to. Last week, she was given 90 minutes to explain her position at the EU summit. She was, a senior source said, “F***ing awful, dreadful, evasive.” She didn’t get what she wanted. The EU was willing to grant only a short extension, to 12 April, unless the withdrawal deal passes next week, which it won’t because the DUP says so. If it doesn’t, the UK parliament can seek a longer delay, but would have to take part in the European elections.
Having castigated MPs for their failure, May has also made it much more likely that the Letwin-Boles-Benn amendment, proposing to seize control of the Commons timetable from the government, will be passed.
Once, I believed that May, though a terrible negotiator, short on EQ and rhetorical skills, was at least acting out of a sense of duty; that she was trying to secure the best possible outcome. But no longer. If May had a sense of civic responsibility, she would never have made that inflammatory speech or risked a No Deal through time-wasting. She wouldn’t have allowed herself to be held to ransom by the DUP or the ERG. A strong leader would have taken political risks for the public good; a weak, but well-intentioned one would have taken a long hard look at the mess she had made and resigned.
At the time of writing, she is still hanging on, though MPs and European leaders want her to go; need her to go. Her desire to see this through, despite being bereft of ideas, is bordering on pathological.
Having failed to make any inroads in persuading naysayers to sign up to her deal, she appears to be moving towards indicative votes on options which might also include revocation of Article 50; a second referendum; a deal and a customs union, and a deal, a customs union and a single market.
But May has taken us so close to the cliff edge, it is no longer possible to identify any safe passage back. Though watching the signatures on the petition rack up has been a welcome distraction, no-one really believes it would be possible without a second referendum. And a second referendum – while probably the best way forward – carries attendant risks. Were Leave to win convincingly, it could lead to a harder Brexit; were Remain to win (and Brexit not happen), a significant proportion of the population would be incensed. Even a softer Brexit is likely to provoke some kind of backlash.
Meanwhile, a confidential cabinet office document on No Deal warns of a three-month critical phase and 12 risk areas, including transport, healthcare, food and water and national security.
Whatever happens in the next few days there will be pain; and, in the long term, May will bear much of the responsibility – not for the vote itself, of course, but for the failure of leadership that has brought us to this predicament. Sadly, before a proper assessment of her legacy can be carried out, we have to endure and survive the nightmare she has helped create.