The Downing Street press office has given selected journalists “exclusive” interviews with our new prime minister. By one of those million-to-one coincidences that must make spin doctors believe a supernatural power watches over them, every journalist they graced with their favours interviewed Theresa May on bended knee.
“It must be hard for someone so reserved and modest to become one of the most public figures in the world,” gulped the reporter from the Sunday Times, as her head ducked so low, onlookers must have feared whiplash injuries to the neck. “How do you steel yourself for making tough decisions?”
The Financial Times had no doubt she could take them. “The word ‘queen’ attaches itself easily to Theresa May,” its reporter began, not least because the historical figure she identifies with is “Elizabeth I”.
Alas, Downing Street could not find a “window” for the Observer. The press office has offered us nothing. Not even a “brush by”. We must live with the snub, hard though it is to bear, and listen instead to those who know what they are talking about. If you do, you learn that the reasons for Theresa May’s success will be the reasons for her failure (and possibly Britain’s failure, too). It’s too Elizabethan, even for the FT, to talk of May possessing “tragic flaws”. She doesn’t have grand faults, just the standard coding errors you must expect if you install a Thames Valley Tory into your system of government.
Readers who don’t know the rich river towns and villages between Windsor and Henley won’t grasp how invulnerable conservative values and conservative culture can feel in the heart of Tory England.
But it is easy for everyone to understand why so many warm to the self-confidence May’s life in Maidenhead has bred in her. Unlike the politicians of the Blair generation who announced their transatlantic tastes by saying how much they admired The West Wing or gangsta rap , May has an unembarrassed taste for Kipling’s If, The Great British Bake Off, James Bond and MasterChef. Like her supporters, she isn’t remotely edgy, and cannot see anything wrong with parochial and comfortable English life.
One minister who argued with May when she was home secretary was careful to emphasise that she wasn’t an ideologue in the usual sense. She did not try to insist on her righteousness, and never raised her voice or thumped the table. For all that, her absolute certainty did not waver for a second. “Never giving an inch scared off opponents,” he said. “Cameron and Osborne were frightened of her.” He admired her in a grudging way, but he left the Home Office thinking he had never seen a politician with so little imagination. May could not put herself in others’ shoes, or accept that an adversary had an interesting point.
The polls suggest the country likes her determination. And you only have to look at her treatment of others to see how much she enjoys it herself. She didn’t allow George Osborne to resign, but fired him, then leaked details of his humiliation. She mocked Boris Johnson in public without stopping to worry that he was her foreign secretary. Even politicians who supported her leadership bid say she is friendless in parliament. There are no Mayites. There’s only May.
As with politics, so with the bureaucracy. When he worked for her at the home office, Nick Timothy, her special adviser, barged into a lift full of civil servants. He had to keep prodding the buttons before it would move. “Just like the civil service,” he announced to one and all. “You must hit it six times to get a result.”
Last week May warmed to his theme. She was “frustrated” by civil servants, who tried to define what she meant when she promised to help “just about managing” families. I can see why voters appreciated that too. A PM willing to apply the smack of firm government to bureaucrats is welcome in a chaotic world where nothing seems to function.
But before we get so carried away with adulation Downing Street invites us to interview her, consider why she did not want civil servants to define “just about managing” families. Precision would have shown that, for all her promises, her government did next to nothing to help them in the autumn statement.
If we had a quarter-way competent opposition, rather than the detritus of the far left, it would be shouting about how May had barely touched George Osborne’s benefit cuts to working families. It would be warning that Brexit, inflation and declines in productivity will, in the words of the Resolution Foundation, leave the entire bottom third of the income distribution poorer.
May’s breaking of her promises to struggling families is dwarfed by the vast project of extracting Britain from the European Union. When the negotiations begin, a hitherto credulous public will realise that her alleged virtues are real vices.
Rightwingers are living in a dream world. Parochial and insular, like May, as uninterested in foreign cultures as she is, as convinced that they can dismiss opposition as brutally as she does, they forget that other countries have their politics too. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard them play variations on the theme of “German car manufacturers will never allow the EU to restrict their exports to Britain”.
Even now, with Britain heading to the brink, May is insisting that she and she alone can take the thousands of decisions Brexit will entail. Meanwhile the Financial Times is reporting that her government of Pollyannas believes Britain would be doing a kindness to the EU if we agreed to a transitional arrangement to soften the shock of Brexit.
et seems to realise that EU countries have a strategic interest in keeping the union together. They cannot give Britain generous terms because it would encourage others to leave. Politics trumps economics, in Europe as everywhere else. (If it did not, we would not have voted to leave.)If we are not to be stuck with disastrous terms, we need a cosmopolitan leader, who has the imagination to see other points of view and the intelligence to make compromises. Instead we have Theresa May. She is not “reserved and modest” but obstinate and uncomprehending. Doubtless, all the Tories she has humiliated will turn on her when the realities of Brexit spin apart the competing interests of small towns and big businesses in the Conservative coalition.
Don’t feel sorry for her then. Feel sorry for your country, your neighbours and, in all likelihood, yourself.