Say what you will about Theresa May, but she is not likely to be getting much sleep lately. As if the usual business of a Brexit marathon, a raft of domestic policy, a press slathering over every misplaced word, and everlasting bickering in her Parliamentary party were not enough, she endures a horrible conference. Between her Foreign Secretary joking at a fringe event about clearing away dead bodies in Syria and a conference speech typical of a sketch show, the poor woman can’t seem to catch a break. In pursuit of some semblance of strength and stability, she has remained loyal to Johnson – or, alternatively, dithered. No doubt Johnson misspoke terribly; taking into account his history of stupidly crass remarks, particularly his comments on Liverpudlians in the light of the Hillsborough atrocity, it is clear that he is at least a very careless, and possibly quite nasty character. Nonetheless, he holds one of the four great offices of state, and sacking someone in that position over an inappropriate joke would be typical of the politically sensationalist times we live in.
To see an example of the lack of substance in modern politics, look at the reaction to Theresa May’s speech to the Conservative party conference. Early in the speech, a comedian called Simon Brodkin gave the Prime Minister a P45 on stage, claiming that it was from Boris Johnson. Bless. There is enough to be said about the security errors that allowed him to get so close. What if, instead of an unfunny comedian, it was someone with intent to do her harm? Aside from questions about security, is there not something very infantile about interrupting the Prime Minister mid-speech? She might be one of the most hapless Prime Ministers in living memory (and there is plenty of competition there), but she holds an office with a distinguished history that commands immense respect. Interrupting a major speech in the interest of self-promotion to stoke Cabinet divisions is extremely petulant and he has been rightly condemned for it from many angles. Really, the proper response would have been to ignore the whole thing.
That was not the last of it. Beleaguered by a series of coughing episodes straight out of a Hillary Clinton speech, May struggled to drag herself through the speech with a voice with a fraction of its usual potency. Screwing up when speaking in front of hundreds of people – and this is written with personal experience – is hell. It is one thing to make a policy misstep in an interview. Giving a car crash performance in front of legions of people expecting a well-flowing speech feels like a heavy failure of all of them. That is to say nothing of the multitude of cameras beaming your image worldwide. To experience your composure draining from you, and having to fight to regain it while your dignity is being publicly shredded is horrific.
Those seeking to make political points from it or sell papers on the back of it do so shamefully. If Theresa made a beeline for the nearest dark room and lay there for several hours, she would have been entitled to do so. Yes, maybe she should have had an extra drink, or a lozenge, or a session in speech therapy beforehand, but if people are trying to use that against her, is it any wonder that the job of Prime Minister seems to age its holders so much? Not much better are those who coo sympathetically about how brave she was, with the best (or, in many cases, most sycophantic) of intentions. After an on-stage semi-disaster, the last thing you need is commentary of any nature. This was a Prime Minister doing nothing less than her duty in finishing the speech in highly unflattering conditions. Good show, non-story.
Just to add to the fun, an ‘F’ would soon fall from the lettering on the wall behind the Prime Minister. Maybe the set was trying to pay its respects to the performance. Another non-event meriting not a millimetre of column space, surely? Not so for the Times, the Sun, the Telegraph, and the Metro, each of which splashed pictures of the collapsing set on their front page the next day. Amongst the major dailies, only the Mail and the Mirror devoted their main story to specific content of the speech: the reform to organ donation rules. Actually, this whole media circus is more than just boring. It is very, very sad. What a state has politics come to that an arrogantly symbolic stunt, a coughing bug, and some inadequate glue make for headline news. It’s difficult to know how we got into such a clickbait-esque, bitesize news culture designed to poke fun rather than report and scrutinise policy, and even more difficult to see how it can be reversed.
Fast forward to yesterday morning, and the former chairman of the party, Grant Shapps, is doing the rounds on the media, boasting of thirty names from the Parliamentary party who want a challenge to May. That under a tenth of her MPs want her gone after a spectacularly disappointing year is, if anything, a startling affirmation of May’s luck and resilience, particularly in a party that loves nothing more than a good mid-term leadership battle.
In spite, or maybe because of yesterday’s drama, her position seems a little more settled than it was forty-eight hours ago, and she is to stay, at least for the moment. It may not be desirable that she stays in such a weakened position while she deals with the European Union, but her position has become rather like the UK’s membership of the Union. We really shouldn’t have been flattered into it in the first place, and we should have dispensed of it sooner. Maybe a Labour government would have. But we’re stuck, and we can manage a couple more years unless we want an almighty political mess to befall the country. For the reality is that to pull out overnight – if such a mechanism existed – would be economic, political, and logistical seppuku. Crashing out without a deal would potentially yield the same outcome merely delayed by a couple of years. So there is truth to the statement that no deal is better than a bad deal, if only because ‘bad’ is so broadly defined that you could set ‘bad deal’ arbitrarily to mean something as terrible as you can imagine. In other words, it is meaningless.
This is one of the few advantages of a Prime Minister with no obvious philosophical motivation (and no, a country that works for everyone is not that). May is not beholden to any strong political anchor. She’s certainly not much of a conservative. This is not especially admirable, but it may just be useful. She is a pragmatist, and may be forced by political reality to weave Brexit through a path that is neither catastrophic nor a betrayal of the referendum result. Imagine if we had an Owen Paterson figure as Prime Minister. Paterson boasted two days ago that, without a deal by Christmas, we should bombastically inform the EU that we’re flouncing off quite happily without a deal. In this scenario, international trade could decline by up to 30%, according to a report by Dr Monique Ebell of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. Paterson is no loony, either. He is a serious politician with experience in the Cabinet.
Then imagine an Anna Soubry type, unambiguously committed to freedom of movement in the long term and unshakable from the firm view that the whole Brexit process is a sorry mistake. On the one hand, you have currently seamless customs processes interrupted virtually overnight and UK participation in brilliant schemes like Erasmus and Euratom probably terminated. If botched, who is to say that Brexit itself could be publicly seen as a mistake and reversed? On the other, a total defiance of the referendum result. Yes, leave voters each voted for their own personal reasons, and no overarching view unites them other than a wish to see the UK leave the European Union. In practice, though, how many people cast their ballots happy to see control of borders, fisheries, and agriculture beyond Parliament’s grasp? How many remain voters, for that matter, wanted some reform of the European Union’s obsession with freedom of movement? As it happens, 55%, according to a NatCen report a little under a year ago, along with 85% of Leave voters. Perhaps there is something to Boris Johnson’s red line on freedom of movement. Either way, disaster.
Suppose that the Conservatives did change their leader. The new Prime Minister would have no more of a mandate than May had when she took office in July last year (even if it feels like a good deal longer ago). Arguments from the Opposition and other parties about the lack of a personally invested mandate from the UK electorate could and would be easily rehashed. The election gamble may have turned out to be a costly mistake for Theresa May, but she did get returned to government, just about, with a mandate to call her own. There are a few Conservative leaders just in this century that would have happily taken that.
None of this is written as an endorsement of her approach to leaving the European Union. As an enthusiastic Leaver, the future looks, at the very best, uncertain. The Prime Minister’s Florence speech received little acclaim outside of her party, as it was a bit of a flop. Her team has done little to address the Northern Ireland question and progress on residents’ rights and the settlement fee is still slow. The government is miles from a solid deal that would unlock the best of Brexit’s opportunities. This stalemate persists at a time when the UK is about a quarter of the way into the negotiating period, with a deal ideally needing to be wrapped up in a year, barring an extension of the deadline. In a perfect world, a switch could be flipped and a more competent government with a long-standing belief in Brexit could replace May’s administration. We are not blessed, however, with a perfect world. Leadership elections take time and a change of face on the part of the UK. And barring another general election (for the love of God, please no) an alternative Prime Minister could only be found within the Conservative party.
In years to come, May will not remember 2017 as one of her happiest. There is not much indication that the next few will be much better. Her credibility is almost completely annihilated, and cannot be easily trusted to deliver a successful Brexit that reasonably accommodates the concerns of most people in the country. Leavers and remainers alike should be careful what they with for, however. There is no obvious alternative. She may be making a dog’s breakfast of Brexit so far, but she may just be the one to save it. Yes, she is one of modern history’s most uninspiring Prime Ministers with a stultifying lack of vision. Yes, she has gone from being a very authoritarian Home Secretary to a feeble Prime Minister with a Brexit portfolio more immensely complicated than her empty slogans could hope to address. She has presided over record high NHS waiting times for surgery, rising crime, disability benefits cuts, a burgeoning housing crisis, and any number of other failures. It is right that she is jibed at, jeered, and joked about by the Opposition, much of the press, even the normally friendly press, and the public. However, taunts directed at the aesthetics of a very serious speech, fake P45s, and untimely calls for her resignation do nothing for her office. They do nothing for Brexit. And they do nothing for the country.