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Theresa May: the hollow PM

How the beleagured premier has been left exposed as the Tories are devastated by the Brexit plague.

The concept of luck is partly connected to the idea of justice. If someone is deemed unlucky, the implication is that they deserved better. Misfortune is weighed against reasonable expectations. So has Theresa May, in that context, been unlucky? After her traumatic conference speech in Manchester, dreadful bad luck was the defence that her allies understandably put forward. The cough, the collapsing set behind her, the woeful security that allowed a prankster to get so close and loiter for so long – all these things, on one level, were simply unlucky. The longer-term circumstances suggest that her luck will only get worse: a Conservative Party in disarray, thin on talent, thinner on loyalty.

Yet May seems even more snookered on the truly important thing. Having ostensibly campaigned for Remain, she now heads a government that has committed itself to achieving Brexit – and all this without a majority in the House of Commons.

That the Prime Minister battled on and finished her speech, sympathisers argued, was a mark of her sense of duty and resilience. “The old girl made it,” announced the front page of the Daily Mail, casting her as a struggling but gallant racehorse desperately searching for the finish line. It reminded me of a quip by Steve Waugh, the ruthless Australian cricket captain: “There’s room for pity in sport… but not much.”

The verdict that May was “unlucky” shouldn’t be nodded through without scrutiny. The spectacle of her suffering at Manchester was poignant. At times, I found it unbearable to watch: anyone who has performed in public, even on much smaller stages and for lower stakes, would have felt sympathy and concern. But professional sympathy? With each week, the question increasingly becomes not so much “How has May fallen so far?” but “How did she rise so high?” Yes, May’s recent career seems unlucky. Taken as a whole, however, the truth may be the reverse.

May has made much of her “competence”. How does her track record stack up against that self-assessment? Consider the timing of the triggering of Article 50; the Supreme Court saga; the cultish tone of a general election campaign that was ill-suited to her personality; the way she allowed her advisers to take the blame afterwards; her appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, leading not to new loyalty but to serial disloyalty.

What about another strand of bad luck – the idea that Brexit has scuppered May, as it appears to have destroyed all its figureheads, one by one? Brexit seems better suited as a popular movement than a coherent policy, with dangerous consequences for those who try to make it the latter. In previous New Statesman articles, I have called this effect “the Brexit plague”: “Politicians have not ridden to power on the back of Brexit; Brexit has ridden to power on the back of them… Like a superbug, Brexit inhabits its host spokesmen and women before choking the life out of them.” The Conservative Party has suffered the worst epidemic. Even a party historically adept at survival and adaptation has found no remedy. Brexit continues to tear it apart. Given the extreme difficulty of the negotiations and May’s weak grip on power, should we mark down the Prime Minister as just another victim of the Brexit malady?

On one level, we could. May’s attempts to rebrand herself with an undersized domestic agenda were always doomed by Brexit in the foreground. A wedge of cash for first-time buyers, adding to a scheme that inflates house prices still further; a sop to Conservative free-marketeers that left the impression that May neither believes in nor quite understands market principles; something about the “British dream” that didn’t quite take flight – a few trifles when set against the scale and significance of Brexit.

Look closer and it gets even worse for the luck thesis. After all, Brexit first made May before unmaking her. In that context, is it bad luck if the Brexit debacle now takes the prize away?

Instead of rogue bad luck, there is an alternative interpretation: a career plan that has gone horribly wrong.

Remember that during the most important British political conversation of modern times, Theresa May said, in effect, nothing. By being non-committal, she kept her post-referendum options open.

At the time, I felt that this almost disqualified her from becoming leader. You have to earn power, not just win it. Perhaps wrongly, I then wavered on this point during the apparent calm after the referendum but before the general election campaign. After such heated partisanship, there was an appetite for May’s cooler tone. Perhaps her non-committal stance, I wondered, was better understood as an Oakeshottian sense of proportion?

However, there comes a point when decisions must be made and explained. Here, May’s failures in office downgrade her performance beforehand. It looks now as though May exhausted all her strategies in negotiating the Brexit referendum rather than Brexit itself.

Boris Johnson once joked that he wouldn’t mind becoming prime minister if “the ball came loose at the back of the scrum”. May followed the Johnson plan much better than he ever did. Unlike Johnson, May recognised that she would be quicker to grab the ball if she disentangled herself from the scrum.

It has become commonplace to argue that David Cameron, by calling a referendum to appease Eurosceptics in his own tribe, put careerist party politics above the needs of the country. The same charge could apply, in a different context, to May. She did little to preserve Britain’s membership of the EU – at least Cameron tried – while skilfully positioning herself to achieve power in the aftermath.

You begin to wonder how May spent the long hours in which other Remainers were trying to keep Britain in the EU. You also wonder how unlucky May appears to the Cameroons who, searching for heavyweight allies, couldn’t find her when they needed help.

Analogies drawn from sport can be simplistic. But I have noticed a recurrent problem for new captains in sport that may be relevant here. If a new captain is perceived to have been hedging and self-serving during the previous regime – especially towards the previous leader – it rebounds against him or her in office. Unless power is used effectively straight away, questions grow about how power was won in the first place. Luck and justice, once again, can be intertwined.

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Earlier this autumn, the Prime Minister was interviewed by Jonathan Agnew on the BBC’s Test Match Special. Sometimes apparently unpolitical interviews can be the most revealing. We heard a person, as well as a politician, bereft of confidence. At times, May seemed unable to achieve even a base level of conversational fluency.

May has said that she is a lifelong cricket fan and I don’t doubt her. How easy it should have been, then, for her to provide some colour to accompany that theme: her relationship with the game, a light sketch of a hero or two, why the sport engages her – anything, anything at all. This aspect of the exchange was, in effect, an open goal for any professional politician. Yet nothing emerged except awkwardness, fear and defensiveness.

This cannot be explained away as a reluctance to “spin”, or contempt for the superficial, or evidence of her favouring substance over style. There was a sense of desperation, of someone who had lost a map and couldn’t find her way without it.

At times, it felt like watching a bowler or golf putter suffering from the yips. The term “yips”, literally speaking, describes the inability to perform what are normally routine tasks. May was saying things but no meaning emerged. She spoke but failed to communicate. (Something similar happened to her at times on the Manchester platform.) In the empty spaces where conversation would usually have developed, there was a hint of righteous dismay – I’m speaking, can’t you see that, I’m doing my duty, what more do you want?

It isn’t easy to strike a balance between light and serious, especially when you are under pressure. But it is inconceivable that John Major, who experienced some torrid spells as prime minister, would have failed to transmit warmth and energy in a similar position. He would have shown us his love for the game rather than just telling us it existed. In the same interview slot, Ed Miliband was strikingly warm and open to mischief; David Cameron was notably crisp and to the point.

What if May simply has little to say about unserious matters? This would be a stronger defence if she excelled at discussing serious matters. The alternative looms: she has little to say about anything. Nor is this just a patch of poor form from which the Prime Minister is likely to re-emerge. Like a singer-songwriter whose new bad album exposes the clever production devices that sustained the older and better ones, May has found that her current struggles have seeped into her back catalogue. We have all known reluctant talkers and read great depth into their pauses. Subsequent banalities, when they emerge, downgrade the earlier silences.

During May’s interview on Test Match Special and again during her agonising conference speech, I found myself wondering not how she managed to perform calamitously in a general election but how she achieved such a huge lead in the opinion polls beforehand. Andrew Rawnsley, writing in the Observer, rhetorically inverted the idea of May’s rotten luck: “Her career has been kissed with outrageous fortune.”

It is surely the ascent, not the descent, that demands analysis. I, too, overrated her at the peak of her popularity, mainly because I warmed to the idea of a prime minister who appeared reluctant to pander to the 24-hour news cycle.

In reality, May’s secretiveness was being artfully repackaged as contempt for the shallowness of “insta-news” culture. That was brilliant spin by her much maligned strategists: keep quiet and call it steely rectitude. Instead of being the architects of an election defeat, perhaps May’s former inner circle – Nick Timothy and others – pulled off an incredible heist. They took her to the highest office in the land, then made her look imperious without her saying or doing very much at all. The conference debacle showed what May looks like without the people who created “Mayism”: no one to protect an ailing leader from a pointless and exhausting cycle of interviews in the days before her big speech; no one to create a narrative in the conference speech itself.

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What about the argument that Theresa May is now soldiering on, drawing on her sense of duty and public service? I don’t doubt the value of those qualities, nor that the Prime Minister possesses them. Yet the call of duty, in the absence of much else to say, begins to look like a final reason to cling to power.

Mayism, even when it seemed to be working, suffered from a common failure in leadership: defining the project largely in opposition to what has come before. Even during “peak May”, the central message was that she wasn’t David Cameron, that her conservatism was somehow more properly rooted (hence her “citizen of nowhere” dog whistle a year ago).

As with Gordon Brown’s obsession with not being Tony Blair, May and her circle appeared to be so preoccupied with slighting the previous regime – notionally her own side – that she failed to articulate a positive vision. The purge of the Cameroons doesn’t look so steely today. On the rare occasions when May has been decisive, her judgement looks poor.

The prospect now arises of some genuinely bad luck. The reluctance to punish someone for superficial bad luck – a natural sentiment after May’s ordeal on the conference stage – may overshadow the Conservative Party’s more urgent duty: to find the best available prime minister. Sympathy is not a strategy, and pity is not a policy.

On this final point, there are worrying signs of a different kind. There is talk in Conservative circles about “a new kind of leader… social media this… the under-40s that…” But how about a simpler agenda? Instead of reducing the available types, seek quality: the best person to do the job, the superior candidate.

After all, being tonally different from the previous incumbent doesn’t translate into being up to the job. We have just learned that, all too painfully. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled