I first met Theresa May, or met her properly, way back in the last century. I’d been invited to speak at a constituency dinner for Maidenhead Conservatives on a Saturday night, and sat at her table. She was with her husband, Philip; I remember only my suspicion that he didn’t desperately want to be there. Of her I remember the pallor, and a certain shyness; but the couple were pleasant and welcoming to me, and as I’m not one to pump people for political news and gossip, and she isn’t one to volunteer such things, this was not the sort of evening that would have prompted an entry in the diary I don’t anyway keep. I suspect hundreds who’ve dined with Mrs May, asked to recall the occasion, would struggle — as I do here — to say much more.
The second occasion was very different, and a couple of years ago. This time my partner and I were the hosts, and our MP in the Derbyshire Dales, Patrick McLoughlin, and his wife Lynn had brought the Mays to supper with us after she’d spent the day pressing the flesh in the East Midlands. It was Theresa and Philip’s wedding anniversary, poor things, and this cannot have been the ideal way to spend their time.
But she was fun. She arrived with a bottle of gin. I teased her about the wedding anniversary and said that we’d hired a male police constable strippergram for after dinner but Patrick had reminded me of her spat with the Police Federation so I’d cancelled. She had the grace to laugh. As the evening went on everyone relaxed and we talked about anything but politics, which I noticed she avoided; and by just before midnight, when the Mays left, I’d concluded she was nothing like the ‘ice maiden’ or robotic figure the newspapers claimed. My (imaginary) diary entry would have run to a good few paragraphs, and noted too her suddenly candid response when somebody mentioned a particular individual she evidently didn’t care for. ‘Vehement’ would be the word. It was quite startling.
We are most of us, I’m afraid, susceptible to feeling flattered by the attention of important people, so I have to report that after that evening, and after a cup of tea with her at Downing Street more recently, and because my mother’s pet name is Terry, I cannot but wish Theresa May well. One should be made of sterner stuff, of course, but one isn’t. I realise — I acknowledge — that her deficiencies as a campaigner, a media performer and perhaps as a prime minister have been brutally exposed this year; and all too often, after wincing at some ghastly phrase like ‘citizen of nowhere’ or ‘subverting democracy’, I’ve fallen embarrassedly back on that old apologists’ staple: ‘It must have been written by her advisers.’
It’s more than a soft spot, though: it’s hard intuition that drives me to say that there are some extremely mad and extremely bad people around in the world of British politics today, and Theresa May isn’t one of them. Indeed I fear that she may come under sustained attack from some of those people — and then it’s our support she will need, not forgiveness. Remember this about the Brexit zealots: it’s always somebody else’s fault.
But is she any good? The most damaging charge from those who can’t forgive would be incompetence. ‘She isn’t up to the job,’ they’d say, ‘no fault of hers, maybe, but for so many years to claw your way up over colleagues in order to pursue your own infatuation with a job that by the morning after the last election you must have realised was beyond your talents… that is worse than unforgivable, it’s careless: careless of your country’s interests. She should have resigned on 9 June.’
Well, yes, I thought she should have, too. And so (it’s said) did she. But she was persuaded that her resignation wouldn’t help, and one can see the force of the argument. She has been landed in the middle of this Brexit mess, she didn’t choose it, and it won’t do any good for her to jump ship.
Besides, aren’t we diehard Remainers guilty of a certain disingenuousness when we say that Mrs May isn’t up to the job of making a success of Brexit? I thought we didn’t believe it was possible for even the Angel Gabriel to make a success of Brexit? That’s, anyway, what I believe. So don’t ask me what May ought to be doing that she isn’t, because I know very well already that what she ‘ought’ to be doing — telling the headbangers they’re bloody fools and should surrender at once to the softest Brexit we can salvage — would bring down the British government.
I have an explanatory theory of Theresa May. It’s too clever by half but I nevertheless expect events to move as though it were true, even if it isn’t. My theory is she’s known from the start that Brexit was silly but, understanding all too well the damaged mental processes of the Brexiteers, has understood that Brexit Syndrome can only be cured by the shock of experience. She has therefore decided to present herself — indeed to behave — as a leaf in the wind, Prime Minister in name only, blown hither and thither by hot blasts of zeal from the Brexiteers and freezing intransigence from Brussels. A cruel-to-be-kind nanny, she’s letting the children play, knowing full well it will all end in tears.
The dark moon rising behind all this madness is Brexit, and Theresa May cannot stop the tides. Scholars question whether Canute thought he could, the received wisdom being that the king’s aim was only to teach his subjects a lesson. The next 18 or so months will, likewise, be a lesson in impotence. If, by proving powerless to stop Britain totally messing this up, Mrs May can teach her country humility, she will deserve our forgiveness. I can forgive Icarus, too.