The news yesterday that Theresa May has postponed the ‘meaningful vote’ on her Brexit deal has been hailed as yet another “humiliation” for the Prime Minister, the latest in a long string of disasters. Her authority is in question, her very survival in No10 under threat. So this might seem like an odd time to write a blog praising Mrs May. But that’s what I find myself doing.
Well, kind of. Theresa May will not go down in history as a great Prime Minister. In fact the students of 2050 will be told that she should never have reached the top. Lecturers will talk about how it happened: how Cameron and Hilton muffed the 2010 election; how Cameron didn’t stand up to his Eurosceptic loony fringe; and how Cameron failed to campaign properly for Remain. How even after the Referendum it was not certain that the Queen would call for Mrs May, but with rivals self-destructing only May and Leadsom were left standing. And so, they will say, she stumbled into Downing Street, fell into a job she was ill-prepared for.
They will be right about that. It was obvious years ago, when her name first was linked with the top job, that she wasn’t cut out for No10. She has little or no constituency of support in the Parliamentary or wider Conservative Party. She is wooden and awkward in public and on television. For the most part she simply doesn’t listen to advice, and when she does it all too often comes from people like Nick Timothy who she listened to far too much. She ticks few of the boxes of a successful modern politician.
And her time as PM has only proved the point. She has presided over a spectacularly bad election campaign, in 2017. Cabinet Ministers have left with monotonous regularity. She has weakly oscillated between the rock of the EU and the hard place of the Conservative right wing. Windrush, Universal Credit and homelessness have all shamed her regime, even if they are not directly or not exclusively her fault. And the biggest mistake of all, drawing red lines very early on that painted us into a corner. There is little impressive about her track record.
And yet there is so much that is impressive about the Prime Minister herself. Even her enemies have a grudging respect for the way she has stoically kept going. No humiliation has been too great to overcome her resilience, and no trial a match for her stamina. She has kept going and going and going, doggedly, calmly and unflappably. How is it possible not to admire that?
And look at the hand of cards she was dealt by her predecessor. History will not judge Cameron, the lazy dilettante, kindly; he was, and is, with his bizarre belief he could be Foreign Secretary one day, the living embodiment of the great curse of establishment politics, complacency. He created this Brexit mess and he abandoned it to Mrs May. Although she has made mistakes in dealing with it, principally the red lines, she has at least never complained. And who, seriously, would have handled it better?
So what will history say about Mrs May? It will probably say that her track record was terrible, unless she performs a Houdini-like escape and gets her Brexit deal through. But it will hail her heroism, the fact that she appears to believe in public service and real patriotism, in selflessness and sacrifice. It will note the monumental egos that preceded her, their need to be loved, or impose their will, or fill a hole in their emotional lives. It will say she believed in duty and not in self-aggrandisement. And in the end, although her time in power may be presented as a tragedy, she will be judged kindly for that.
We, in the present, should attempt to do the same. Of course Theresa May is flawed but at this time of national chaos it is at least a little bit reassuring to have a leader who is honest and trying to do her very best in an impossible situation. Could anyone way the same about just about every one of the alternatives. As MPs contemplate replacing Mrs May they should give due weight to her strengths as well as her weaknesses.