|Theresa May (Photo: BBC)|
Hours of media speculation as to the significance of the Prime Minister’s address culminated in a two minute speech which basically regurgitated the same soundbites – “delivering on the will of the people”, “acting in the national interest”, etc – while saying absolutely nothing of substance.
However, the attitudes that her short speech pointed to were of much greater interest. This was not the professional “less is more” kind of speech political leaders tend to give in difficult situations. No, this was something else altogether – an egotistical, desperate, arrogant and divisive attack on Parliament itself.
Adopting a populist anti-politics approach the Prime Minister announced she was “on the side of the public” and berated Parliament for its refusal to be bullied into submission. She said: “Of this I am absolutely sure. You, the public, have had enough. You are tired of the infighting, tired of the political games and the arcane procedural rows, tired of MPs talking about nothing else but Brexit when you have real concerns about our children's schools, our National Health Service, knife crime. You want this stage of the Brexit process to be over and done with. I agree. I am on your side."
That might have made more sense if the Prime Minister had, at any point in the last 32 months been keen to talk about schools, the NHS or knife crime – or if she had run a general election campaign on such policies rather than on her own supposed personal qualities and her suitability to deliver Brexit.
It might also have been more convincing if the cause of the “infighting” and “political games” had not been her own dismal leadership, intransigence and insistence on arbitrary red lines. Mrs May offered no insight into her own responsibility for the constitutional mess, no acceptance of the way in which her actions have served to alienate rather than unite. Mistaking obstinacy for strength, the Prime Minister’s refusal to acknowledge mistakes has served her badly for some time; however, her decision to blame her own MPs, and Parliament itself, for a situation of largely her own making is truly breathtaking.
Was this the most inept speech by a serving Prime Minister?
Taking on the side of the public versus parliament is, in practical terms, highly risky at a time when she needs parliament most. What can realistically be gained by appealing to the public when she has ruled out a public vote, and when she urgently needs parliamentary support? Theresa May now appears an authoritarian who has lost all authority – and whose instinctive reaction is to go on the attack, attempting to bully rather than persuade. More worrying still, in referring to Parliament as “they” and proclaiming herself the Defender of the People, she has moved into highly dangerous territory.
She lacks the political courage to make personal criticisms, instead projecting her feelings, frustrations and prejudices onto the public. This is ill-judged and dishonest. It’s also difficult to see who she’s actually seeking to appeal to here, as few other than one or two malcontents are likely to feel she speaks for them.
Identifying with “the people” against supposed elites, blaming subordinates for one’s own failures and setting oneself up against Parliament are the kind of tactics that are associated with authoritarian dictatorships – not the “mother of democracies”.
Aside from what this tells us about Theresa May’s mindset, it’s factually dishonest to claim the public simply want politicians to “get on with it” when it is clearer than ever what the implications are. The situation calls for reason and continuing conversation, not kamikaze tactics and incendiary speeches.
No, Mrs May – leadership does not involve attacking civil servants and parliamentarians, but accepting responsibility and facilitating ways forward.
No, Mrs May – invoking the spirit of that great supporter of Parliamentary sovereignty, King Charles I, is not an acceptable way for a 21st century political leader to behave.
No, Mrs May – MPs of all parties, and of all views on Brexit, scrutinising your proposals and expressing dissent is not “politicians arguing among themselves”. They are doing the country a service by carefully exploring the available options and rejecting what is either unworkable or damaging. It is your own failure to engage with politicians from across the political spectrum and propose an acceptable arrangement that has led to this impasse.
No, Mrs May – you are not entitled to prevent people questioning you. In fact, you have a responsibility to uphold our democracy, respect Parliament, protect standards and bequeath a flourishing, fit-for-purpose legislature to future generations. You are a guardian, not a dictator.
No, Mrs May – the Speaker standing up for Parliamentary sovereignty and insisting on applying the kind of rule that every local council follows is not an “arcane procedural row”. (Such criticism is also a bit rich coming from someone who attempted to circumvent parliament with “Henry VIII powers”.)
No, Mrs May – you do not speak for “the People”, only yourself. Do not put your poisonous words into our mouths or patronise us by telling us what we have had enough of.
No, Mrs May – this is not a problem of Parliament’s creation but your own. History will remember it as such, and none of your cowardly words will enable you to evade responsibility.
No, Mrs May – you will not succeed in having Parliament approve your Withdrawal Agreement, for the simple reason that you have treated Parliament with utter contempt – and continue to.
Whatever the Prime Minister manages to gain from the EU in Brussels today, there can be little doubt that her tenure is ebbing towards its undignified conclusion. It is difficult to see how - having alienated and insulted her own MPs, Parliament itself and the civil service - the Prime Minister can command any kind of authority, let alone respect.
Theresa May once seemed to revel in her reputation as “a bloody difficult woman”. Being difficult can have its advantages if used to apply pressure in fraught situations, to command respect or to advance policy positions when lacking a parliamentary majority. Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, she has all the “difficulty” with none of the attributes necessary to win people to her side.
The game’s over for Theresa May. Unfortunately, there’s still a long way to go for Brexit.