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The Spectator's Notes

Leadership requires imagination, but Theresa May has never displayed any

14 March 2019

9:00 AM

14 March 2019

9:00 AM

I had forgotten, until I checked this week, that Mrs May timed the general election of June 2017 in order to have a mandate for the Brexit negotiations. They began ten days after the nation voted. She conveyed no sense, at the time, of how the election result had changed her situation. In her beginning is her end. Political leadership requires imagination. She has never displayed any. Why, for example, did she fly to Strasbourg on Monday night? She made the same mistake in December 2017 when she took a dawn flight to Brussels after making a hash of the Irish problem. The point of dramatically winging your way out of the country is to be seen to win something. Instead, Mrs May is the spurned suppliant. She seems to have been guided by the satirical rhyme about Neville Chamberlain in the Munich epoch: ‘If at first you don’t concede, fly, fly, fly again.’ Why did she go and accept yet another unwelcome kiss from Jean-Claude Juncker unless she knew that she would receive something persuasive for her backbenchers by doing so? And why did she deploy the legal authority of her attorney general? She must have known he would be bound — if he wished to retain professional respect — to admit to parliament that her tweak to the deal means so little that ‘the legal risk remains unchanged’. She was not in the chamber when Geoffrey Cox sealed the deal’s fate. She had arranged the choreography, but then found she could not dance.

Obviously the Prime Minister herself bears chief responsibility for these mistakes, but she must have been terribly badly advised throughout, not only by political staff — who always get it in the neck when things go wrong — but by the professional civil service, which tends to escape censure. I have been genuinely surprised by the bureaucrats’ uselessness in the negotiations. In my Thatcher studies, now drawing peacefully to their close, I find that the mandarinate, though out of sympathy with Mrs Thatcher, did, on the whole, do its best for her. It was excited by the possibilities she opened up, and enjoyed surmounting the various crises. People like Anthony Parsons, Nico Henderson, Percy Cradock, Terry Burns, Peter Middleton, Robert Armstrong, Robin Butler, Richard Wilson, Antony Acland, Robin Renwick, Crispin Tickell and, in a very different way, Charles Powell, did great things for her administrations. Even wicked old John Kerr, still working flat out against our national independence, was a subtle negotiator in her time. But what was poor Sir Jeremy Heywood or Olly Robbins or dismal Philip Hammond’s dismal Treasury doing to surmount problems or create opportunity in the last two years? Our departments of state have lost much expertise, impartiality and professionalism since the Blair cultural revolution. It is showing now. Some top Remainer public servants — Mark Carney, Alex Younger of MI6 — have actually had their terms extended to ensure ‘continuity’ through Brexit. We don’t want continuous negativity.


How often in this saga have we heard leaders lament the ‘lack of certainty’. Certainty is rarely available in political affairs, but confidence can be achieved. One reason for the hopelessness of Mrs May’s deal is that it would prolong uncertainty not only in discussions of the future relationship, but also, because of the backstop, sine die. An extension of Article 50 would also do this — for the obvious reason that it requires more time, and because it has no clear purpose and is open to further EU manipulation. A second referendum would be even more uncertain and confidence-destroying. As for ‘parliament taking control of the process’, that dissolves confidence in the British system of government itself, casting doubt even on the management of the public finances. Of all the possibilities now facing parliament, only leaving with no deal — temporarily tough though it might be — can offer any confidence. Despite Commons votes against, it remains enshrined in law. It would mean that our constitutional status would at last be settled. That is a firm foundation which all the other options lack. Both the EU and our government, by the way, say they are now ready for no deal. It is agreed, in fact if not in signature: let’s go.

A besetting sin in this process has been over-cleverness. As so often in our history, the ‘stupid’ people are right. The Brexit question is a classic example of something which is simple but not easy. It is ‘Do you want to be ruled by those you can choose, or by those you can’t choose?’ Voters understood this, and gave a clear answer. Clever people keep complicating it. Three leading examples of this, I am afraid — Oliver Letwin, Nicholas Boles and Michael Gove — are good friends of mine. Precisely the qualities which endear them to me in private conversation are proving a menace to the public weal. Their ability to look at things in surprising ways and generally argue the hind leg off a donkey blinds them to the key issues and makes them conjure into existence brilliant ‘solutions’ which only make everything worse. The voters are not donkeys.

I feel particularly sorry for Michael, because there is psychological torment here. His understandable reasoning for not resigning over Mrs May’s Chequers proposal was that he had been accused first of betraying David Cameron, then of betraying Boris Johnson. He could not face being accused of a third betrayal by walking out on Mrs May. This meant that he unintentionally betrayed the cause of Brexit. He is now the government’s media apologist for whatever piece of contortion comes out of Downing Street, and is humiliated when the line he has just peddled collapses a few hours later.

In the blame game, how much should the full Brexiteers be criticised? Only really, for one thing. When they won the referendum, they folded their tents and went home. If they lose — and it is completely unclear who will win — it will be for this reason. Remain, under May and Hammond, ‘took back control’.


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