“Boris has negotiated in Europe. I seem to remember last time he did a deal with the Germans, he came back with three nearly new water cannon.”
A great joke that, and well delivered too, by a woman looking decidedly happy with her lot in life, comfortable in a tartan Vivienne Westwood trouser suit and comfortable in her own skin. Two weeks later she became prime minister, and was never seen or heard from again.
Theresa May walked into 10 Downing Street because the Brexit wing of her party could not work out what they wanted. Three years later, she will walk out again for the same reason.
It has been a premiership so badly mutated by self-inflicted injury, it is almost hard to see, now, that it was in any case doomed from the start. To become prime minister of the United Kingdom because the incumbent has decided of his own free will that the task ahead is one he cannot do is a historical one-off.
David Cameron’s view, by the way, as expressed in that rarefied dawn on 24 June 2016, was that only someone who believed in Brexit could lead the country forward. What Theresa May actually believes about Brexit is as mysterious as ever, even now. Does anyone know what she actually believes about anything? To hold an opinion risks someone prising it from you, after all. She is far too cautious for that.
But she voted Remain, we know that, a decision that all but compelled her to hand key jobs in her cabinet to prominent Brexiteers. But foreign secretary Boris Johnson would prove an international embarrassment, unable to prevent himself saying appalling things that no MP should say, and certainly not the country’s most senior diplomat.
David Davis and Liam Fox carried on making wild claims about Brexit that could never be delivered, except now they were holding executive positions. It was a farce that could never be sustained.
But from this impossible starting position, she condemned herself yet further, on a momentous night in June 2017, which we shall come on to later.
It has been a remarkable cameo in the highest office in the land. Like so many people in public life, Gordon Brown, being the most striking comparison, it was not until she stepped under the most piercing spotlight of all that her true character was revealed. It should be clear now that the usual high barrier to being PM – leading the opposition and winning a general election – is there for a reason. Those who have been least suited to the role are those who have come by it without facing these tough tests.
Just days after becoming prime minister, a military coup was attempted in Turkey, and she was required to record a simple TV clip for the news channels on what had happened. She winced down the lens like a deer in headlights. It was a countenance few had recalled seeing before. No one is a stranger to it now.
The telegenic and communicative aspects of the job that are so crucial in modern politics, for better or worse, were severely beyond her, and it would come to cost her everything.
Until the moment the general election exit polls came out at 10pm on 8 June 2017, it could be argued she had been a master political strategist. When she drove back from the palace having first become prime minister in July the year before, she stood outside 10 Downing Street in the bright summer sun and robbed the centre left of their policy agenda. She promised to reform the “burning injustices” of modern Britain, to build a country that does not just work for the privileged few.
At her first prime minister’s questions, she appeared possessed by the ghost of Margaret Thatcher, not so much defeating Jeremy Corbyn as vaporising him. Then, a few months later, she gave her first conference speech, in which the robes of Ukip were placed over the centre left ones she had not yet taken off.
Policies were announced that appeared to include companies publishing lists of foreign workers. Grammar schools were coming back. And, in words that were aimed principally at offshore-dwelling tax avoiders but were nonetheless received with great offence by millions of British-born, Britain-dwelling people, she said: “If you’re a citizen of the world you’re a citizen of nowhere.”
The outrage that followed did nothing to restrict her poll lead to anything less than 20 points for long months ahead. She spent a long time saying “Brexit means Brexit”, unbothered and unblemished by the ridicule she received for her almost admirable lack of subtlety in refusing to answer simple questions.
Eventually, she decided what Brexit meant. “Out of the customs union, out of the single market,” she said, in a speech at Lancaster House which, to anyone with a detailed understanding of the workings of the European Union, was immediately obvious as a huge strategic error. She laid down red lines which would have to be crossed, even in favourable circumstances. And when the time came, circumstances were not favourable.
Not that it mattered, for the time being. The Conservatives won a by-election in Copeland that appeared to undermine the Corbyn project so utterly that even Owen Jones lost faith.
And so, while walking in Snowdonia with her husband, she took what looked to be a wise and sensible decision.
It was to obtain the majority she would need to secure the passage of her Brexit deal through parliament (even if the vision of Brexit she was at this point pursuing, would never, ever have been tolerated by her European counterparts. Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s most senior EU diplomat, could have told her this, but he had already quit his post in protest at not being listened to. It was also to push back the date of the next general election far beyond the deadline of the Article 50 process, which she imagined would remove political leverage against her from both Labour and the EU.
The blame for what happened next is the subject of a row that will never end. But in the coming weeks, she allowed her advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, and the party’s chief strategist Lynton Crosby, to build a personality cult around a woman who would come to reveal, day after agonising day, to have no personality at all.
The slogans she hoped would win that election (“strong and stable” or “coalition of chaos”) cut through to the extent that two years later they are still the subject of mickey-taking cards in novelty gift shops. And as she reinvented herself as a subject of ridicule, Jeremy Corbyn held his nerve against all odds, and became the candidate of choice for the huge constituency of people that hold huge sway over the outcome of elections – namely, the ones who care nothing for politics but decide in the days before votes which potential prime minister they would rather have a beer with. Nobody foresaw her losing that particular contest. She lost it hands down.
It would lead to her being in a sports hall in Maidenhead at 3am, wearing a mask of utter despair, and standing next to a dabbing space lord wearing a bucket. From that point on, her job and her life became impossible. The DUP was recruited to prop up her minority government. In the Brexit negotiations with the EU, the Northern Irish border question, which was meant to be one of the simple things to get out of the way before the real talks began, became intractable.
The bloc would not countenance any return to a customs border on the island of Ireland. She could not countenance remaining in the customs union. The DUP would not tolerate anything that altered the status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland has had its own, different laws, for years, on abortion, on gay marriage. But it would not do so on this.
It is an unsquareable circle that has burnt the word “backstop” into the souls of the nation. It has become the stuff of sleep paralysis nightmares, month after month after month of trying to move on concrete legs.
The moments at which she had to save her premiership are so many it is almost impossible to recall them all. She was handed a P45 by a serial prankster in the middle of her conference speech. Then she lost her voice and the set fell down around her.
It was more than two years after the UK voted to leave the European Union before she was able to coerce her cabinet into an agreed position on the UK’s negotiating strategy. They finally agreed to it at a weekend summer summit at Chequers. Then her Brexit secretary and her foreign secretary resigned over it.
She shed cabinet ministers at an unprecedented rate. She lost more parliamentary votes, 28, than David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and John Major put together. One of those defeats was the largest in British political history. Another led to her government being found in contempt of parliament, for refusing to publish legal advice that was damaging to it. A historic first.
But she did win one crucial vote. At the end of last year, when she failed to put her withdrawal deal before the House of Commons, certain she would lose it, her tormentors in the European Research Group finally succeeded in bringing a vote of no confidence against her. That day, MPs ultimately decided that they did have confidence in her.
It set in motion a kind of political torture that this country has never seen. Her own MPs had chosen to keep her premiership going, but they deprived it of its only purpose. Three times she brought her withdrawal bill before the commons. Three times she lost. Each time she returned to Brussels to extract concessions that could not be extracted, like a beleaguered waitress, shuttling between a stubborn chef and an impossible customer.
It was a torture that ran through winter and spring. Seasons changed but nothing changed. It was punctuated by increasingly bizarre set-piece statements outside and inside Downing Street. No deal stopped being better than a bad deal. Brexit might no longer mean Brexit. The whole transparent edifice fell away.
In one of her final acts of desperation, she stood, late at night, behind a lectern in 10 Downing Street, and stared down the barrel of the television cameras, trying to appeal directly to the public, by blaming MPs for the intractable mess. It was nothing short of stunning. Within 24 hours she had all but apologised for it.
She began that notorious statement by saying that failing to deliver Brexit had been a “cause of profound personal regret”. It set in motion the inevitability of the UK having to take part in elections to the European parliament. Brexit has unleashed terrible populist demons upon the UK. The European elections have been a golden opportunity for them.
That she, the prime minister, and leader of the Conservative Party, gave them an entirely free run at them is quite possibly the most damaging thing she has done. The potential consequences do not bear thinking about. But the torture will not see out the summer. The show is over.
There is already a clamour to ask how history will judge her. We cannot possibly know. History will contextualise her against what comes next, the history we are yet to live through. It is possible, probable even, that the May premiership will be remembered as a calm and genteel time. She has made mistakes, but she has also been the lightning rod for problems that are all about Brexit, not about her, and that is likely to become clear very soon indeed.
In those chaotic days of 2016, she seemed like the sensible choice because she had been a reluctant, or at least not especially enthusiastic Remainer. She was a bridge between troubled worlds. She steps down from leading a party fighting a furious civil war with itself. The precise circumstances that made her the right choice in 2016 have not gone away, they have intensified. Her replacement faces a terrible crisis from day one. There is precious little reason to imagine they will be better placed to manage it than her.
It is possible history will note a quite staggering amount of bad luck. It was her choice to ride the impossible bronco of Brexit. President Trump is a crisis she could not have seen coming. And surely no one has ever paid so high a price for a sore throat.
The intricacies of who blames who for misery the country and its prime minister have been through together are too complex to chart. Whoever has tortured who, there is nobody who hasn’t suffered. Do not be surprised if, after the pressure valve is released and the inevitable moment of catharsis, surprisingly large reserves of empathy will be discovered. There will never be a cry of “Come back Theresa!” but it may nevertheless be that all will be very quickly forgiven.
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