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1 May 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 4:17pm

On feeling sorry for Theresa May

She never had my vote, but now she has lost my sympathy.

By Tobias Stone

Until recently, I had found myself feeling sorry for Theresa May.

I in no way support her politically, but as one human to another I felt her pain. Imagine making it to the top job, achieving your dream, only for it to be a waking nightmare. I felt for her at a human level; she looks drawn, antagonised, haunted.

She became Prime Minister because the other candidates were so busy knifing each other in the back that she looked like the least bad option. Then she called that fateful election which saw her plunged into a Tory version of purgatory; she wasn’t allowed to resign, but also cannot rule, left in limbo between political death and political hell, forced to circle around the seemingly never-ending, politically insoluble quandary of Brexit. 

Her purgatory is to remain eternally jammed between the two sides of her cabinet like the matron at a public school trying to stop a brawl between two junior rugby teams. Every time she nods in the direction of one faction, the other flicks her ears and calls her names. The childishness and lack of discipline she has to deal with makes her look more like a supply teacher than a Prime Minister.

And then everything she does becomes just another massive cock-up. However hard she tries to focus her skills on a problem, her skills just never amount to much. In the end she’s just not very good and is only in the job by default. Meanwhile in parliament she survives only thanks to the shambolic incompetence of the opposition benches, constantly too distracted by their own internal absurdities and lack of leadership to gain any political capital from the comedy of errors playing out across the House. Amber Rudd resigning was not so much a Labour win as as a Tory own goal. She dug her own hole.

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It is a sad state of affairs for the UK having such a second rate Prime Minister. Whilst Macron is out in America forging a new Special Relationship, and showing global Leadership, May is in England, throwing wet towels on the little fires burning all around her, disconnected from global affairs and lacking influence, or even relevance, in a way that this country possibly hasn’t known for generations. Taking back control locally has meant giving up control internationally. England is now little, the Kingdom no longer United, and Britain no longer Great. I am not sure how that could represent the desired outcome of any rational Tory’s ambition. It makes me sad.

It was hard not to look at her and feel sorry for her. Surely she didn’t actually want any of this. Surely she lies in bed at night wishing it would stop.

But then this Windrush scandal happened. May was back in her two most familiar political roles: apologising and backtracking – as the graffiti seen across London says, “strong and stable, my arse.” But this time the Prime Minister wasn’t apologising for her mistakes now, or the misdemeanours of one of her wayward colleagues. This time, she was apologising for her previous policies as home secretary. Politicians love to blame the previous incumbents, so it is inconvenient when those earlier mistakes were made by themselves. It is one of the downsides of being in power for any length of time.

This is why all the apologies were in the passive tense, detached from any personal pronouns. “I” and “we” did not make mistakes, just “mistakes were made”. It was offensive to watch May say sorry for her mistakes without ever taking any blame. The lowest moment was her mockingly trying to score political points over the despair of the people she serves by trying to blame Labour for all this, citing technicalities of when decisions were taken, rather than when they were executed. That single comment alone marks her as unfit for her office.

It was May who had presided over the idea of creating a “Hostile Environment’” for illegal immigrants, who had sent vans around the country threatening illegal immigrants with arrest. Her slogan of “go home or face arrest” is just too similar to “foreigners go home”, or “go back to where you came from”. Only a fool would fail to make the connection between a government policy that told foreigners to “go home,” and an overflow from that into out-and-out racism elsewhere in society. This attitude from the top links directly with Ukip’s “Breaking Point” poster, and to the worse excesses of Brexit. It is unforgiveable for a mainstream politician of any party to lower the tone of social discourse in this country to something so blunt, mean, and entirely based on spleen rather than data.

This far reaching, un-British set of policies caused widespread misery and harm in order to address a population of illegal migrants that may represent as little as 0.5 per cent of the population. Labelling them as “illegal”, while technically true, associates them with illegality in a way that implies they are also criminals in their other behaviour, which in no way reflects the reality of the situation, and just inflames xenophobia and racism.  

May, and Rudd, has said that their immigration policy was reflecting the mood of the population. But that is just populism. No British prime minister or home secretary should claim populism as the driving force behind their policies. That is a total abdication of responsibility in a representative democracy. Politicians, especially political leaders, are elected to rule on our behalf, not at our behest.

Populism is bad because it is often stupid. In this case, May was answering a populist call to be cruel to immigrants from people who, on the one hand, want to see immigration cut to an absurdly low number, parroted by May herself, but, on the other, want to be treated quickly when they turn up at a hospital. This week, in the midst of this controversy, the NHS complained that the Home Office, following May’s policies, has rejected visa requests for 100 doctors from India at a time the NHS is dangerously short of staff, needing 100,000 or more people to keep it functioning. The Home Office claims these visa caps are “in the national interest,” but clearly they simply aren’t.

This kind of knee-jerk populist policy-making has seen the government tie itself up in silliness, where one policy creates another problem, the solution to which creates another problem, until the machinery of state becomes tangled up in a Gordian knot of intractable policy paradoxes. We’re also seeing this in Brexit with the Irish border, restricting the freedom of movement versus needing labour, and too much more.

In the middle of this immigration controversy, that has seen elderly tax-paying stalwarts of British society deported, May flip-flopped around over race, migration, and really the fundamentals of what this country is about. She announced a Stephen Lawrence Day at the memorial to Stephen Lawrence’s murder, claiming to be the compassionate beacon of race-relations, only minutes after having been lambasted by Sir Lenny Henry over the Windrush scandal in front of the very same audience.

This reminded me of the ethical sleight of hand she made over Brexit, from lecturing the nation on how awful it would be for us all to suddenly becoming the Brexit-whipping dominatrix of her current premiership, promising us it will all be a wonderful success. Let’s just remember her saying:

“I believe it is clearly in our national interest to remain a member of the European Union… Remaining inside the European Union makes us more secure, it makes us more prosperous.”

Which of her opinions is true? She cannot be both against and for Brexit, convinced it will be a disaster and a success. She also cannot be both anti-racism and in favour of cracking down on sending foreigners home. She cannot argue for a liberal, open and compassionate country while at the same time using language like “hostile environment” against people who may be here illegally, but who are not by definition behaving like criminals.

May’s legacy at the Home Office has led to the resignation of her successor. Amber Rudd was all over the shop, and went along with May rather than challenging the way people were being treated on her watch. Rudd may have been the better of a bad lot, but her inability to handle this situation, and the mess made under her leadership just emphasises how weak both front benches are in today’s Commons. May has let Rudd take her grenade, but she will surely soon run out of people willing to fall on their sword for her, just as she’ll run out of vaguely coherent MPs who can replace her almost regularly resigning cabinet members.

So I no longer feel sorry for Theresa May. I have been reminded this week that she’s not just an incompetent politician only in her job because everyone else around her is either too mad or useless to oppose her, but she is surely a thoroughly rotten person with no scruples, willing to stoop as low as she needs to become and remain Prime Minister, to satisfy her political ambition regardless of the cost to the country or to the people who get stepped on along the way. Worst of all, she has shown herself to be a populist, which demeans her position. She never had my vote, but she has now lost my sympathy.

Tobias Stone writes about politics, current affairs, society, and history. He is a regular contributor to Medium’s member section, and also writes for New Statesman, New European, and Newsweek

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