It was a cricketing analogy Theresa May chose, in the end, to explain her decision to cling on to a role she never mastered: that of a Prime Minister tasked with negotiating the kind of deal which only ever existed in the fantasies of a few deranged Brexiteers. “One of my heroes was always Geoffrey Boycott,” she said. “And what do you know about Geoffrey Boycott? He stuck with it and got the runs in the end.”
Setting aside the fact that what most non-cricketing folk know about Geoffrey Boycott is that he once supported Ukip and was convicted of assaulting a former partner, it was still an odd comparison to make. May has proved she has the cricketer’s staying power, for sure, but not his passion. Her reluctance to leave the stage smacks more of inertia than of any belief in her power to deliver.
Watching her make her statement in the House of Commons, as cabinet members and MPs prepared to desert her and opposition MPs hurled abuse, it was that old football chant that came to my mind: “No-one likes us; we don’t care.” Except, of course, that when Millwall supporters sang the line it was an expression of defiant solidarity; an “us against the world” kind of thing. For May, there is no “us” unless you count her husband Philip, who poured her a whisky after her marathon cabinet meeting. There is only her, ploughing on, never veering from her set course. Like a missile launched into outer space, she seems propelled less by hope or conviction, than by an inability to stop and the lack – so far – of sufficient resistance. Even being compared to appeaser Neville Chamberlain appears to have done little to dint her determination.
Has there ever been a lonelier figure in history than May? Macbeth watching the approach of Birnam Wood, perhaps? Or Julius Caesar lured to the Theatre of Pompey by his erstwhile allies? Et tu, Dominic? Et tu, Esther? Et vos, several junior ministers most of us had never heard of? May exudes loneliness the way some people exude vitality. Long before no confidence letters started stacking up, she appeared ill at ease in the company of others, be they members of the public or world leaders. Remember that footage of her at the EU summit in 2016? The one where she fiddled anxiously with her cuffs and searched for someone to talk to, as all around her other attendees greeted each other with hugs and air kisses?
I have neither met nor read of anyone who has found in May either a force to be reckoned with or a kindred spirit. Most report her as lacking in presence and conversational gambits. In a rare personal jibe aimed at another woman, Nicola Sturgeon said she found it impossible to get any human connection. As for when May takes on Jeremy Corbyn at PMQs: Denis Healey’s famous jibe about being “savaged by a dead sheep” comes to mind.
Bingeing on the latest season of the Brexit box-set is emotionally confusing. What are we supposed to feel for this robotic character who refuses to be beaten, even when she so obviously is? Not admiration. There can be no admiration for a leader whose management of everything from Grenfell to the snap general election has been so spectacularly inept. And certainly not for a leader who, while home secretary, introduced the hostile environment policy that led to the Windrush and other deportations.
Respect is wrong too. How can we respect someone so out of touch with the impact of Tory policies that – even as her party is preparing to tip the country off a cliff – she thinks it’s amusing to jig her way out to the conference podium?
Despite myself, what I did feel for May, last week, was a sort of muted regard for her obstinacy. May is a Remainer who took on the challenge of achieving the unachieveable – a compromise that would suit everyone – presumably because she felt it was a better option than having negotiations conducted by a sovereignty-obsessed Brexiteer.
It was an impossible, thankless task and she was undermined at every turn. Nevertheless, she and her civil servants put together a deal. Perhaps it’s a dog’s dinner of a deal; perhaps – as Jo Johnson suggested – it will leave us a “vassal state”, but it’s more than any of her blowhard critics have done. And at least she had the guts to face down the DUP on the Irish Border backstop.
May’s deal is unlikely to be passed by the House of Commons, but as any deal capable of passing through the House of Commons is unlikely to be agreed by Brussels, she was always on to a loser.
Yet, while she is taking all the flak, where is the man who kicked this off this fiasco in a misguided attempt to buy off his party’s right-wingers? At a financial conference in Florida, of course. David Cameron is a shameless dilettante who takes responsibility for nothing. His catastrophic miscalculation has never stopped him sleeping at night. He left No 10 with nary a backward glance.
The same is true of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, who were last week spotted enjoying a cosy drink at an upmarket restaurant, and former Brexit Secretary David Davis, who is currently in Washington.
Whatever else May lacks – grace, empathy – she does not lack a sense of civic duty. Why else would she plough on, pushing a deal in which she cannot believe to a party that only tolerates her because it doesn’t know what else to do? Anyone else would have packed up long ago and headed for the nearest wheatfield.
This is not an endorsement of May’s premiership, which has been characterised by a series of humiliations and mistakes, and an inability to answer questions with anything other than her sound-bite du jour. Her craven cosying up to Trump still makes me queasy.
But imagine the resolve it takes to get up every day and face the public when you are assailed from all sides; when you know that some of those, like Michael Gove, who have agreed to join your cabinet, have only done so in the hopes of bringing you down from within; when you know no gain is ever going to come from all the pain.
Imagine putting yourself through all that when you are aware your legacy will be naught. No matter how this turns out, May is going to go down in history as one of our worst-ever prime ministers.
When she first became leader, the columnist Marina Hyde riffed on a Katharine Whitehorn quote which asked: “Have you ever taken anything out of the dirty clothes-basket because it had become, relatively, the cleaner thing?” May, Hyde said, was “the cleaner thing.”
It was true then and it’s true now. It is a testament to the amorality of almost everyone else involved that the prime minister comes across as a person with a degree of integrity (if not charm). She is the best of a very bad bunch.