At various points in the sorry Brexit saga I’ve sought to imagine the Prime Minister inside Number 10. I try to picture her having a personal conversation following a particularly hard day or sharing a playful joke with a colleague at the harmless expense of another. I sometimes try quite hard with this thought experiment but I more or less draw a blank each time. I’m not alone – the indecipherable mind of our Prime Minister is the subject of intense speculation, but very rarely anything more.
Last week a friend and I were speaking of the widely reported inability of Mrs May to forge personal connections with journalists, MPs and the public. It is no secret that the politics of persuasion has been amiss since taking office and must, at least in part, be responsible for the three-time defeat of her defining policy, the doomed Brexit deal.
From refusing to reach across the House to find a consensus, to addressing the nation in a tin-eared speech blaming the parliamentary logjam on the MPs she needed most to convince, the ongoing crisis has been worsened by a leader unwilling to engage in flexible and substantive conversations – with those on both sides of the House. Reports awash of MPs entering the room to speak with Mrs May about their objections to the deal, only to find her reading off a script in front of her when answering their questions. The inability to have frank conversations which acknowledge the concerns of her contemporaries has cost her dear.
But my friend believed the stern, resilient and dogmatic qualities of Mrs May might be an indication of the health, and not weakness, of Britain’s democracy. We’ve long resented the personality-driven politics, they said, which allows success to be measured far more in pithy one-line jabs from interviews, clipped and shared en masse on social media channels, than an individual meticulous on the policy detail and a dedicated public servant.
I thought about it for a while, wondering if I’d got the PM wrong and had been conditioned to overlook her dedication to delivering what she does, I believe, consider the best possible Brexit deal on offer. This is probably the closest she can come to both ending freedom of movement – which she believed to be the critical instruction from the voters in 2016 – with retaining as close an economic relationship as possible.
But I don’t agree. To start, I’m not convinced we value personalities anymore than we did a century ago. Sure, the media has revolutionised the nature of political communication. It’s often said FDR would never have been President had he sought election in the media landscape of today; his avoidance of wheelchair use in public was possible only for the more limited media landscape of his time. Meanwhile, Raegan is considered a big winner of the media revolution – the ex-Hollywood man was a perfect fit for addressing the nation on television and debating rivals before America headed to the ballot box.
But pithy one-liners and those who seek the headlines have always existed. Take Churchill’s father. Lord Randolph Churchill was well-known to flip-flop between policy positions throughout his political career, often more concerned with the political mischief and oratory opportunities available in a given position than its merits alone.
Sadly, I think the answer is more simple. Mrs May has been a poor leader by most standards. There’s not been adept comprehension of policy. Had there been the necessary grasp of the fundamental Brexit truths, as Ivan Rogers has previously said, the consequences of her red lines would have been understood and likely dropped before they saw the light of day – the former ambassador to the EU called the PM’s woeful lines an ‘act of folly’. The effective communication and adroitness with dealing with wavering colleagues is patently absent too, and so our Prime Minister lacks both qualities mentioned by my friend.
There might yet be a way to restore her legacy to some sort of respectability. May will never go down as a nimble political operative, an effective communicator or a dutiful public servant who prioritised the country above party politics. She might’ve managed the latter, but last few months have seen her endorse a Malthouse Compromise – a deluded and botched attempt to glue the Conservative party together for a little longer with the undeliverable promise of an end to the backstop – as well as offer her own job up if Conservative MPs back her deal. Subsequently asking MPs to solely to vote on the Withdrawal Agreement, and leaving behind the Political Declaration, sent a clear message: vote for my deal and install a hardline Brexiteer for the next stage. It was beyond her to consider the twenty or so Labour MPs who wanted to support Brexit but were forcefully alienated by another mistake of her own making.
But should she heed the calls made by the one million who marched last weekend for a public vote, as well as the many MPs who backed one through indicative votes a few days later, she could yet find a route through for her deal. Via the Kyle-Wilson amendment May could see her deal passed by Parliament, subject to public approval in the referendum. If she believes so strongly that it remains the wish of the British people to leave, now that the costs of Brexit are clear, then so be it. But she should take the chance.
MPs won’t go for her deal if she brings it back again with nothing else to offer. All the threats of crashing out, of not leaving at all or of trampling years of cumulative constitutional fabric ultimately fell on deaf ears. Parliament is holding out for better. On Monday, it’ll have the chance again to thrash out a compromise. Sir Oliver Letwin’s command of the order paper will continue, and a possible combination of a customs union – the closest to victory last week – with a referendum could seize the day. May could change course of history and seize a consensus which stands the best chance of bringing our bitterly divided country back together. She could, but she probably wont.