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Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Why I have no sympathy for Theresa May

I have a six year old daughter, Xanthe, who is developing something of an interest in politics.

She likes to see women in politics, which is both understandable and positive. In fact, I'd go so far as to say she admires many women she sees working in the political arena - irrespective of which party they belong to. There is one thing we disagree on, however: she has remarkable sympathy for the Prime Minister.

Her logic is that Mrs May works hard, has a cabinet of out-of-control self-serving idiots, has inherited an unenviable situation and feels bound to honour the pledge of the former Prime Minister in "respecting" the result of the referendum. Xanthe told me she felt "very sorry" for the Prime Minister last night. I told her that I'm sure Mrs May does indeed work very hard, but that she's working hard doing all the wrong things.

Last night's vote was historic for several reasons, not least the unprecedented scale of the defeat. It was nothing if not spectacular and exceeded the most pessimistic of predictions. In a little over 18 months the Prime Minister's supreme confidence in her "strong and stable" leadership (confidence so great she called a General Election believing the likely result would be a 100+ Conservative majority) has been replaced by the humiliation of suffering the worst Commons defeat by any Prime Minister in history. To unite the Commons against her so completely is quite an achievement - something even Margaret Thatcher failed to manage.

And the scale of defeat is fully merited.

It is true that in the early days of her "leadership" I did feel some sympathy for someone who looked out of their depth trying to manage a situation of others' making. But that rapidly evaporated, and I have no sympathy for her now. She has reaped what she has sown.

Theresa May's problem is that while the Brexit decision was not hers, the red lines were. There was no need to categorically rule out ongoing membership of the customs union and the single market. There was no requirement for her to invoke Article 50 so immediately, or to set an arbitrary date for leaving. Such red lines have made her "deal" much harder to sell to both Parliament and the British public.

But it's not just those decisions that have damaged her project - her attitude throughout has been contemptible. In sneering at pro-Remain activists, dismissing them as an out-of-touch "metropolitan liberal elite" and labelling them as "citizens of nowhere", Mrs May showed herself to have little interest in forging consensus. She had no desire to reach out to the 48%. Wrapping herself in the union flag and resorting to the simplistic nationalist rhetoric of the Little Englanders was designed to speak to a particular section of society. As Neil Warnock might have said, "to hell with the rest of the world". Any goodwill the Prime Minister may have had from the international community or moderate Remainers rapidly disappeared.

Mrs May at no point has sought to work with others to achieve her objectives. Had she proposed a softer Brexit, and worked across party lines to sell a deal that might reasonably be expected to satisfy (in not please) most, we would be in a very different position not.  But it was always "my way or the highway", to the point of calling a General Election in a vain attempt to give her such a thumping majority that no need for collaboration would be necessary. Suggesting the EU was the enemy, and insisting repeatedly that "no deal is better than a bad deal", further alienated those who could have reasonably supported a moderate Brexit deal. The hostility towards EU leaders was as baffling as it was irresponsible.

And then there were the bizarre appointments of the most incompetent parliamentarians to the cabinet, including the great offices of state. At the time, some within the media praised the Prime Minister's decision to give positions of responsibility to arch-Brexiteers  Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, David Davis and Liam Fox - ensuring that these people would have to deliver on their promises rather than take pot-shots at the government from outside. Such logic assumed that the Prime Minister would be able to control Mr Johnson and his allies. It also assumed that they would be at least sufficiently competent to carry out their remits.

Appointing people ill-suited to the task in order to maintain Remain-Leave balance in cabinet not only demonstrated the new divide in British politics, but proved manifestly disastrous. Johnson's behaviour often undermined the government - even more so when it became evident that the Prime Minister was so paralyzed with fear at the consequences of dismissing him he became, in effect, unsackable.

And there was also the problem that from the outset the government's negotiating position was not only led by incompetents who had imposed unnecessary and damaging red lines, but was also based on poor planning. The thinking behind the plan (and I use the word "plan" in its loosest sense) was based on denying the economic reality of Britain's place in the world - both geographically and politically. It was a plan that failed to look facts in the face. It was a plan that put romanticised and jingoistic notions of British identity first, and practical considerations second. It was a plan that grossly overestimated the UK's leverage in negotiations. And it was a plan that gave little consideration to the complex situation of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish republic - something that had never loomed particularly large in Leavers' thinking.

The Chequers Agreement at least went some way to reversing these mistakes, but it was too little too late and was - predictably - handled in such a cack-handed way that served only to alienate more people while failing to convince those Mrs May had previously estranged.

But critically, the Prime Minister has talked about "delivering the will of the people" without ever seriously engaging with "the people". It was as if the binary referendum question settled the matter for all time and that she alone knew exactly which deal would conform this expressed "will". So confident was she in her belief that she represented "the people" and that her aims matched theirs that she naively believed she would cruise to victory in the 2017 General Election she didn't need to call. In her defence, the opinion polls suggested as much. But she failed to learn from that experience, and she has never had any real rapport with the British public in the way that some previous Prime Ministers had.

Finally, there are her double-dealing tactics, keeping ministers in the dark, playing for time, cancelling votes - none of which would ever win her the support of the very people she needed to make her deal a reality.

So no, I have no sympathy for the Prime Minister. It is true to say that she inherited an unenviable situation, but she has handled that situation badly and fully merits last night's crushing defeat. The failure to deliver the deal is her failure, and it is a failure of diplomacy, statesmanship and leadership. The outcome of last night's vote was not an inevitability, but the product of catastrophic ineptitude.

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