Given that Theresa May is currently being attacked from every side, it is easy to understand why she chose Switzerland – the home of neutrality – for her summer holiday. Now she’s back though, there can be no escape from Brexit hostilities. Indeed, with the new term set to begin at Westminster this week, the big guns are out in force; and they are aimed squarely at the prime minister.
Boris Johnson, who has realised that he is more suited to writing newspaper columns than running the foreign office, has claimed that May’s plans for EU withdrawal will spell “disaster” for the UK. Similarly, the erstwhile Brexit secretary, David Davis, who also decided to opt out of actually trying to oversee our departure from the European Union, says the proposals agreed by the cabinet at Chequers back in July (which he went along with for 24 hours, before quitting over) are worse than no deal at all.
In Brussels, meanwhile, the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier has made it plain that he is also strongly opposed to May’s plans. But whereas Johnson argues against them on the basis that they surrender too much power to Europe, Barnier contends that they offer too little by way of compromise. If agreed in full, he says, they would signal “the end of the single market and the European project”.
And in a further blow, a new poll has suggested that the prospect of Brexit is damaging unionist support in both Scotland and Northern Ireland. So even if the government somehow cobbles together a deal that is agreeable to the EU – and to the UK parliament – the next battles are already in sight.
Luckily for Theresa May, who is oh so adept at public events, the annual Conservative party conference is only four weeks away, which will provide her with a platform to reassert her authority and tackle the critics within her ranks head on. After all, it worked out well last year: the frog in the throat; the collapsing backdrop; the practical joker who appeared with a P45. It could only have been worse had the PM been called on either to curtsy or to dance.
All in all then, who would want to be in Theresa’s charming leopard print shoes? Boris, if you believe the chatter, would fancy a go – though it remains to be seen whether he has enough support among his colleagues to mount a leadership challenge. Jeremy Corbyn, of course, would presumably like to be prime minister. Yet he has Brexit troubles of his own, not to mention the antisemitism row and an upcoming clash over parliamentary candidate selection rules.
Certainly the path for either of these two – or indeed for anyone else wanting to run the rule over 10 Downing Street (Sajid Javid for instance) – is strewn with obstacles. But what is perhaps most remarkable of all is that Theresa May herself remains stubbornly in their way, apparently willing to put up with the most brutal of brickbats and the most challenging of circumstances in order to do her duty.
For that is surely how this prime minister sees her role – not, primarily, as the pinnacle of personal ambition, but rather the culmination of public service. In the summer of 2016, when David Cameron launched the most outrageous hospital pass in British political history into the air, Theresa May grabbed the ball while others floundered. She might not have been a full-throated Brexiteer, but she said she would find a way to make it happen.
In the two long years since then, there have certainly been some bad decisions (the general election, the OTT compliments to Donald Trump, making an enemy of George Osborne). There have been some terrible public appearances too, not to mention a gazillion awful, platitudinous slogans (“Brexit means Brexit”, “strong and stable leadership” etc). The PM has been regularly blasted by the media, badmouthed by colleagues, laughed at by the opposition, decried by business leaders and left on the side lines by foreign leaders.
And yet despite everything, she just carries on: relentlessly; apparently (though not, in fact) oblivious to the criticism and the baying for her blood; disregarding those on both sides who oppose her but who, crucially, have no alternative plan of their own to offer. It is uncomfortable viewing at times and it might all be for naught. But I have to admit it: I’m starting to feel a certain admiration for our bloody-minded prime minister who is, at least, still in the fight.
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