I never imagined, amid the never-ending grudge match that defined the 2016-2019 Brexit Wars, that I would one day appreciate the “strong and stable” leadership of Theresa May. The qualities which defined May as prime minister – her rigidity, her coldness, her chronic lack of imagination – made her fundamentally unsuited to a task that required creative thinking and bringing people together.
How different it all looks now. Today, as Boris Johnson fought to defend himself against the findings of Sue Gray’s long-awaited report into Covid-19 rule-breaking in Downing Street, May found herself back in the spotlight. A moment of tense calm descended on the House of Commons as the bluster and braying temporarily ceased and the former prime minister stood up and, with icy blue suit and an even icier tone, demolished her successor.
“Either my right honourable friend had not read the rules or didn’t understand what they meant – and others around him,” she said, bristling with quiet fury, “or they didn’t think the rules applied to No 10. Which was it?”
I don’t mean to minimise May’s complete ineptitude as prime minister. The bunker mentality of her government kept the country in paralysis for over two years, lurching from one failed attempt to find an impossible Brexit compromise to another. What was needed was a leader with some charisma, some panache, who could confidently bring the nation with them and make the harsh compromises Brexit demanded palatable enough to move forward. She was in almost every way the exact wrong leader for the job at hand.
But whatever other faults she had, we can be certain that Theresa May would not have allowed over a dozen parties across the Downing Street complex in the midst of lockdown restrictions which banned people from saying goodbye to dying relatives and meant the Queen had to mourn her husband alone. The No 10 garden would not have been used as a de facto common room for staff to socialise in; there would have been no impromptu Christmas quizzes or surprise birthday parties. A suitcase full of a wine? I doubt staff in the May Downing Street would have dared to open a bottle of Diet Coke if it risked breaking lockdown rules.
May was a terrible prime minister, but she did at least seem to recognise that the office to which she had been appointed deserved a degree of reverence. And seeing her address Johnson today, it was impossible not to compare her dignity, her integrity, with the self-serving fickleness of the man who succeeded her.
It’s a truism that all political careers end in failure – and the failure of May’s premiership was particularly crushing. But watching her performance on the back benches, I suspect her tenure will be viewed less harshly than those who watched her tearful goodbye on the steps of Number 10 ever suspected. And her greatest legacy may not be anything she achieved as prime minister, but rather serving as a belated reminder of what it is a prime minister ought to be.