I think we can safely now say Theresa May is, and was, a very poor prime minister. Labour MP Wes Streeting tweeted calling her the “worst in British political history” though someone, bless them, noted “after Blair”.
Twitter continually tells me she’s the worst prime minister since Lord North, who ‘lost’ America in the 18th Century. Frankly, I know nothing about Lord North and I’m not sure that ‘losing’ America, as if it were some car keys, was a bad thing. Do you really think that an America still under British rule would have produced films like Terminator: Salvation or Waterworld? My money would go on May being the worst since Neville Chamberlain, who thought it would be a bright idea to stop the rise of Hitler by giving him exactly what he wanted.
May was certainly very bad at some of the things we expect a prime minister to do at least tolerably well. She was not, to put it mildly, a very good public speaker. Her memorable phrases stick in our mind simply because they turned out to be the opposite of the truth, like “Brexit means Brexit and we will make a success of it, “or “strong and stable leadership”. Her constant announcements seemed to be a means of ‘stirring up apathy’ and boring her enemies into submission.
Nor was she much better at the more ‘touchy-feely’ aspects. Telling a nurse there’s no ‘magic money tree’ was perhaps a defining moment back in 2017, just weeks before she actually found just such a tree and gave it to the DUP. Telling a nurse anything except they are ace is dangerous in a country that literally celebrated its healthcare provision through the medium of dance. There are a whole series of other awkward moments, with my favourite being her point-blank refusal to tell a curious school child which Harry Pottercharacter she resembled, a truly Alan Partridge-esque ‘Best of the Beatles’moment.
To make it worse, she had a weird Trump-style brand of what I can only call ‘populist, mildly fascistic super-hypocrisy’. People seemed surprised when she blamed MPs and pitched herself as a brave outsider. But she’s always done this, acting as if nothing was ever her fault and it was the mysterious ‘establishment’ who were out to stop her. Remember, she once claimed the EU were trying to swing the general election for Corbyn. She promised to tackle the ‘burning injustices’ of racial inequality, safe in the knowledge that own her policies had been sending UK citizens to die in other countries.
But she was also wanting in the hidden skills a prime minister needs. Lyndon B. Johnson famously said a politicians must, above all, learn how to count — May seems unable to tot up the numbers of supporters in the House of Commons or persuade them to do what she wants. She’s been unable (or unwilling) to draw on the full potent cocktail of threats/promises/job offers Downing Street can normally wield, so she can’t just offer Rees-Mogg a bishopric in an out of the way diocese. She has even managed to undermine her greatest power, which is to sack people — her Northern Ireland secretary can say truly terrible things about Bloody Sunday, at the worst possible moment, and get away with it.
Most of all, she somehow managed to blend chronic indecision with sudden reckless gambles that go spectacularly wrong. The self-styled ‘vicar’s daughter’ likes a dangerous flutter but lacks the judgement to grasp the odds. She actually learnt from her predecessor David ‘let’s have a referendum about it’ Cameron. His solution to most problems was to essentially ‘ask the audience’: the Alternative Vote in 2011 (easy win), Scottish Independence in 2014 (mmm… not quite so easy) and then the EU in 2016 (ah).
Her premiership, if it’s remembered at all, will be defined around a series of big bold decisions that proved wrong (though many cheered them at the time). She opted for a hard Brexit in October 2016, creating a series of red lines so that her future self couldn’t really negotiate properly. In March 2017 she then triggered Article 50, showing those continentals who is boss by… severely limiting the time available for the very difficult negotiations she already hindered herself in. Then she called an election and managed, somehow, to win it while actually losing it. Her solution since has been to declare war in turn on those she needs to help her, from the EU to her own MPs.
Instead of having the magic ability to see around corners, May had the skill to dig a hole and then fall in it. Attlee said Churchill needed someone next to him constantly saying ‘don’t be such a bloody fool’. May needed that even more than Churchill.