Theresa May’s record of failure

24 May 2019

Theresa May shed tears, but they were only for herself. If the homily about all political careers ending in failure is true, her's was a failure more conspicuous than most. Her three-year blip as the country’s leader saw no achievements, no advancements, no improvements of any kind. David Cameron’s tenure looks like a smorgasbord of success by comparison.


May’s departure lacked the same drama as Cameron’s morning-after exit almost exactly three years ago, perhaps because it had been such a long time coming. Her cabinet, rather than wielding the knife too publicly, expressed their concerns in private that her final attempt to pass her wretched Brexit deal was a step too far. The 1922 Committee joined in to remind her that the backbenchers hated her, too.


The Prime Minister’s time in office can be read as a series of disasters which should have triggered her resignation. The first was the election, during which the Conservatives failed to live up to their historic ability to crush poor opponents. Rather than showing humility, May ploughed on as if she still had a mandate for the hardest of hard Brexits. She probably should have resigned after the Grenfell and Windrush scandals, two names which will dominate the thin books that will be written about her, reminders only of her incompetence and cruelty.


For sure, this January should have marked the end of her premiership, when her Withdrawal Agreement was defeated overwhelmingly for the first of three times. Ministers spoke of her ‘dignified’ exit, but if she knew the meaning of the word she would have gone long ago, not after having nearly forced her party to change its rules just to be rid of her.


In this country, we have something of an obsession with Prime Ministerial ‘legacies.’ We’re not like the Italians, whose leaders come and go at extraordinary speed without any achievements to name. May’s tenure is reminiscent in a way of the world of Berlusconi and Salvini: brought to power by political tidal waves, and quickly undone by the complex problems they have no hope of solving.


Her resignation speech was a gruesome attempt to establish some kind of legacy, but in truth, Theresa May’s record is one of nothing but failure. Brexit completely consumed any time in which the social issues, about which she occasionally affected to care, could be tackled. She actually had to cite the Grenfell calamity, arguably her worst moment as Prime Minister, in order to conjure up some kind of success story, however morbid a tale that may be.


And even on Brexit, the failure is startling in its completeness. She took far too long to realise the strategy of appeasing the unappeasable – the Europhobic lunatics in the ERG – while dismissing the naysayers as enemies of the people, was a catastrophic mistake. Her later attempt to win over Labour with spurious promises about second referendums was too shallow to be convincing.  


Her failure goes back further than that. As Home Secretary, she was responsible for the incubation of the ‘hostile environment’ to make asylum seekers less welcome in the country, with the infamous ‘Go Home’ vans indicating she was into political messages on the side of vehicles long before it was cool. One of her few successes in her political career was to tell her own party that people saw them as ‘nasty.’ Yesterday, they showed for the umpteenth time just how nasty they can be.


So, what the fuck happens now? Donald Tusk told us back in April not to waste this time, advice the Tory party was almost destined to ignore. The contest will run until the end of July, giving us just a few months before the Halloween deadline. Nobody is going to want to try to revive May's deal, so the next Prime Minister will have to start again, and that will require another extension. It will also require a candidate who, rather than having a campaign bus ready to roll, has a plan about how to move forward.


I don't see Boris Johnson coming up with such a wheeze anytime soon. He will try to bluster his way to power and then, well, goodness only knows. He'll make all the mistakes May did, and add plenty of his own. Although he may self-destruct before he gets there. After all, it has happened before.


Johnson (and we really do need to stop calling him 'Boris') is one of the dozens of possible candidates. It is difficult to understand why so many want the job. Like May, they will be overwhelmed by the size of the task once they get into office. Like May, the solutions they attempt to bring will be shot down from many sides, particularly their own. Like May, it will all end in tears.


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