Theresa May’s failure is far more than personal – our political landscape has been trashed
Watching Theresa May’s tearful retreat into the shadows of Number 10 yesterday was excruciating. Witnessing such profound personal humiliation is grim. But far more troubling was what it said about, and for, our politics.
I say our politics because no one, no matter our proximity to it, should be in any doubt about what her failure represents. We’re going to be picking up the pieces long after Mrs May has recuperated.
To acknowledge the ignominy of the moment is not to exonerate Mrs May. A dignified response from opponents was appropriate but it doesn’t make trenchant criticism off limits. Her unbending mission failed because, for all her talk of compromise, she never walked that talk in her own political backyard, let alone beyond the gate.
But anyone who wants merely to crow about her fall is spectacularly missing the point. Mrs May’s end was history long before yesterday. We’ve been watching it in slow motion day in, day out for what seems a very long time. And now, if we’re to avoid political catastrophe in its wake, we need to move fast.
Sure, there was that brief moment when she addressed us from Downing Street just three short years ago. A tiny flicker of hope, even if you weren’t of her tribe, that there might be a way out of the mess left by its previous occupant.
What she said had to be better than the flighty foppishness of the man whose memoirs we now await. Not so much For The Record, but a broken one. For all her flattery that day of his commitment to social justice, it’s hard to think of his legacy as that of anything other than of a dilettante.
But political hopes are easily dashed and rarely more so than with Mrs May. Picking through the debris of her speech, two phrases, in particular, stand out.
First her reference to the three times she had tried and failed to get others to see things her way. Such was the palpability of her sense of betrayal, you could have sworn a rooster was about to crow. For all the pathos of the moment, her lack of humility was unedifying.
The other was her reminder, as if we needed it, that her certainty had been unwavering. ‘The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty’ said Richard Holloway. As a woman of faith, Mrs May must surely know that. And yet if she ever had doubts, we were never allowed to see them.
But just as the moment that ushered in Mrs May’s tumultuous three years was about more than the fatal shortcomings of David Cameron, so her departure speaks to something much greater, beyond party and parliament.
Much of the political failure lies squarely at the door of her own party. Its grotesque infighting continued unabated her whole premiership. That alone made her task undoable. But the opposition played its part too. It too mostly resembled the sort of scrap in the street you’d rather sidestep. Better just to press on by.
Yet her refusal to see Brexit as anything other than a Tory Rubik cube let the Labour leadership off the hook, playing their game of constructive ambiguity long after it was remotely credible. It only served to make it less likely she would solve the puzzle and gave combatants in both parties licence to carry on slugging it out.
Had she challenged the Opposition to look up and go with her, there might have been a slither of a chance Labour could have dusted itself down and helped broker a workable solution.
But she didn’t. So despite Labour’s culpability in creating the mess — Brexit didn’t just happen because of Tory infighting over Europe — its risible response since the referendum has been overshadowed by the paucity of May’s leadership and its effects in her own party.
And all the while, the acrimony in Westminster has only served to allow disillusion and rancour amongst the electorate to fester. Now the problem’s much graver. It’s a tinderbox and Nigel Farage’s new look Brexit venture might just have set it alight.
We’ll know for sure tomorrow evening. But if you thought Brexit itself was a gamechanger, it looks pretty likely you ain’t seen nothing yet. Check out Lewis Goodall’s (one of the most cogent chroniclers of the Brexit crisis by far) piece on 40 days of Farage. Its commentary, not just about what’s been happening, but how it might play next, is utterly sobering.
For all today’s talk of Tory leadership odds, the political earthquake lurking in tomorrow’s results threatens to make a Boris premiership look like a stroll in the park.
Labour’s obsession with a general election is part of what got us to where we are. Though the swelling ranks of leadership contesters make it hard to conclude calling for one is not entirely justified now — particularly in Scotland — it’ll be worth reflecting for a moment, tomorrow evening, what the outcome could be.
I first voted in 1979. On 3rd May that year, an ill wind crashed its way into the post-war consensus, the long term consequences of which were only too plain on 24th June 2016.
Now, thanks to the long tail of Thatcher’s legacy — and the failure to sufficiently mitigate its effects in between times — there’s a much bigger storm on the way — Hurricane Nigel. And it’s going to wreak havoc. Make no mistake, our political landscape has already been trashed. And worse is to come.
For viewers north of the border, the forecast might yet look different. Mrs May’s refusal to engage meaningfully with the Scottish Government — ignoring the significance of the Scottish vote in 2016 and the reality of devolution — has done the cause of independence no harm.
But while continued stalemate at Westminster has made going it alone more attractive to some, it looks as though it may also have provided Farage’s Brexit Party with a firm foothold in Scotland and greater traction than the hapless David Coburn ever managed.
Ignoring what the groundswell of support for a No Deal Brexit means at a deep socio-economic level while playing to its political tune has emboldened Farage and his cause south of the border. Scotland’s future can be different but everyone, whatever future they aspire to, needs to take a long look in the mirror.
Whatever the increased likelihood of independence, at least in the longer term, its supporters must know the sunny uplands prospectus won’t work. If 2014 revealed that strategy’s limitations, the legacy of 2016 has put paid to it.
But this isn’t just a challenge to independence supporters. It’s also a profound question for those who look at the unholy mess we’re in and still conclude independence isn’t the answer. In the hollowed out world of Brexit Britain, how can this disunited kingdom work now?