The ABBA musical version. There is logic behind this, and readers who have not been paying attention will be reminded of it later.
The resignation of Theresa May as Leader of the Conservative Party had become so inevitable that it was barely a surprise – the lectern went out for 10am and there seemed little else that she could be intending to announce. Perhaps a statement on Tuesday, formally taking responsibility for the Euro Election results that will be announced on Sunday night, would have been tidier. But today it was – the day when it was finally acknowledged that one cannot run a Government on the basis of refusing to resign.
Theresa May came to be Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury after the European Referendum of 2016. The Leave campaign ran a slick, professional operation largely not constrained by such inconvenient points as facts. The Remain campaign ran a fairly slick operation on the basis that you should maximise your opponent’s opportunities to punch himself in the face, avoid committing to anything and occasionally point out how dangerous the ideas being promoted by the other lot are. This is not the way to run a campaign to gain the outcome that you want in a referendum that you have called; it is rather better (or at least not much worse) to set out a positive stall for why you thought it was worth crushing the other side in the first place, and ideally not given them room to punch themselves in the face publicly anyway. And people do like some commitments, particularly if they’re kept afterwards.
Still, David Cameron made a hash of it and Theresa had kept a low profile throughout. Her purposeful march for the top job and inspiring slogan of “Brexit means Brexit, and we’re going to make a success of it” brought her party rapidly in behind her – as did the realisation that nobody else had any ideas. Ken Clarke calling her a “bloody difficult woman” gave her added bonus points for negotiations with Jean-Claude Juncker as to who has the bigger economy. Her low profile was put down to a lack of enthusiasm or strategic position rather than a natural inability to campaign. It at least avoided obvious gaffes like Sajid Javid wandering around wearing a “Remain” badge while saying that if we left the EU we would be able to prop up our steelworks. (It may be worth noting that our steelworks have just gone to the wall again and the Government has refused to prop them up. Meanwhile, membership of the EU would have allowed us to argue for steel tariffs on the Chinese on the grounds of environmentalism and workplace safety, which would have made our steel much more competitive.)
As Theresa seemed to have a plan, her opponents vanished before the leadership campaign could ascertain what that plan was (and had it turned out she hadn’t got one the only alternative would have been to elect Andrea Leadsom anyway) and she became Prime Minister to great popular acclaim, a programme of rapidly sending her opponents to a gulag and a speech which suggested a premiership that would reach beyond Brexit. Not bad for someone whose previous memorable act had been a pile of rubbish about a fictional immigrant and his cat, and who had helped wreck our EU membership by sticking to an unachievable immigration target obtained by picking a number out of the air.
Her first few months went quite well; her policy of threatening to drive EU immigrants into the sea if negotiations went badly had a pleasant hint of the 3rd Viscount Palmerston, if a little reminiscent of the vans she’d sent driving round London telling people to go home. (Why, and what they were supposed to do once they were back in their suburban semis in Watford, was not wholly clear.) Perhaps her position was best summarised by the Guardian‘s political sketch-writer as he described her first day in office in tones that sounded rather like admiration.
Not that she had lost too much time in stumbling. Cameron had been on the verge of signing a contract for the French company EDF to build an untested design of nuclear power station at Hinckley Point in Somerset. May lost no time in calling it in for review, which since it involved giving the French lots of money for the opportunity to irradiate Somerset and blame the Government seemed to be a sensible idea. After spending about two weeks reading it she signed it anyway.
Underneath there was a certain failure to accept that there were some 28 million registered voters who had not voted for major constitutional change; some never really minded, some would always be against it and some could be brought round if it rattled to a successful conclusion. It was perhaps with this last grouping in mind – and the politician’s eternal horror of zombie losers coming back to bite the winners’ heads off – that May lost very little time in initiating the Brexit process. The Government’s failure to announce what it thought Brexit should look like was justified on the grounds that it could not possibly expose its negotiating hand before negotiations started. This still prompted some relatively rapid cynicism that it couldn’t reveal its plan because it didn’t have one – a problem that was kept nicely under cover by a legal action against the Government unilaterally triggering Brexit in a Parliamentary democracy.
The Government lost the legal action, but May won the ensuing Parliamentary vote. In those dim and distant times when it seemed reasonable for the referendum to be accepted, even if the ensuing wipe-out of prospects for a generation while the economy rebalanced was annoying, it is intriguing as to why she considered the vote a problem. Similarly, it was dispiriting to see the popular press slating the judges and claimant for demanding that the niceties be observed – particularly as the judges were slated as “Enemies of the People” and May seemed to consider that this was appropriate language to use about judges. At any rate, she never suggested that the tone of discourse shouldn’t go in that direction and that her defeat was not unreasonable.
She similarly wandered around describing people who wanted to have the right to live and work in multiple countries as “citizens of nowhere” while repeatedly uttering that infuriating and divisive phrase “the country is coming together”.
At the end of March 2017 she triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, writing a letter which took us out of both the EU and Euratom – a move which had the bonus of stopping the UK building too many more nuclear power stations and warheads without foreign involvement. The letter is notable for how unprepared she was for writing it. The decision on how to manage the built-up body of EU was subject to White Paper that had not yet been published. A paragraph discusses the Irish border, but does not seem to consider this a major problem for future diverging regulatory arrangements. As a former Home Secretary who had not yet escaped her former role, the letter started by focusing on the security implications of the EU losing access to British surveillance efforts (which within three months would look like a pretty negligible loss anyway), though moves onto economic ties later. Discussions of the details of the Free Trade Agreement are both absent and dismissed as unimportant. She was criticised for approaching it from a standpoint of curtailing immigration ruling out staying in the single market and customs union, but there is no real point in leaving the EU and its opportunities to affect the rules of the single market while staying in the single market anyway. But she had submitted it, and the Press were satisfied.
Having gone and put in the letter just before the French and German elections, May decided to use the time productively by taking advantage of her 20-point lead in the polls. The party had apparently believed her claims that there would be no early election, so there was no manifesto and no plan for one. It was written in a hurry. It was bad. The lead policy was to use the 20-point lead to take social care by the horns, as a result of which the lead vaporised in a few days.
Her opponent, Jeremy Corbyn (who is a dismal failure who has only seen off two Tory leaders), had quite a good start to his campaign. His manifesto was unaffordable but looked good (and was strategically leaked, so we all knew what was in it and had got used to the ideas before the formal launch). He had a certain affability that May lacked. And he ran over a journalist just before the manifesto launch, which goes down badly with journalists but is oddly popular with the wider public.
Meanwhile Daesh, the Middle-Eastern terror group based on an extreme mis-reading of a warlord’s memoirs, decided to celebrate Ramadan by going around killing people. This added a certain feature to the election as politicians, in an entirely non-political manner, lined up to blame each other. Labour managed to get a distinctly palpable hit by blaming the failure to arrest the perpetrators before they perpetrated anything on the previous Home Secretary, the Right Honourable Theresa May MP, sacking large numbers of police officers. With that, and the social care, and some division over forms of Brexit, we went into an election where the Government had discarded a 20-point lead in favour of polls which went so far as to predict a Labour majority.
May lost the election. It didn’t matter. She announced she would set up a coalition with “our friends in the Democratic Unionist Party”, which came as rather a surprise to the DUP – she had not mentioned it to them before and they thought the Tories were aligned to the largely extinct Ulster Unionists. Still, the DUP know an opportunity to pump money into Northern Ireland when they see one – particularly when their power-sharing agreement with Sinn Fein has collapsed – and duly signed up to a confidence-and-supply agreement which turned out to be almost worth the paper it was written on.
With the election out of the way, things could start going wrong in earnest. She was not personally responsible for a West London block of flats burning to the ground, but was unable to doing the sort of humane reaction that Jeremy Corbyn could pull off. Corbyn not losing 200 MPs gave him an odd sort of bounce that gave his policies a bit of extra popularity – rail nationalisation getting particular extra coverage when May’s Secretary of State for Transport rose at the end of the Parliamentary year to announce that he had cancelled most of the investment programme in Britain’s railways back in February 2017 but had not felt it appropriate to tell anyone before. (He had been called “Failing Grayling” for many years, but it now started to stick more widely.)
Her conference speech did nothing for an air that either she or the party was in it for the long term – the stage set fell to pieces, she was frequently interrupted by a hacking cough and a comedian managed to get close enough to pass her a piece of paper labelled “P45” before being led away in handcuffs.
Negotiations finally started with the EU – and promptly stalled on the matter of what the UK’s outstanding committed contribution to the EU budget was. Discussions nearly collapsed before they had got onto anything substantive. The hillock was surmounted narrowly in late 2017 and matters turned to the arrangements to be in force immediately after the UK departed.
It was during this period that the Government was forced to give MPs a Meaningful Vote on the deal brought back. This was perfectly reasonable. The Government – particularly in view of the fact that it had no majority and was shored up by the DUP – could not be allowed to come back with a deal and say that it was going to happen. The problem was that time margins were going to be very narrow. Even at the time, it was pretty obvious that if the Government returned with a pile of tat and the MPs told them to push off there would not be much time left to organise anything else. A particular problem was that May’s narrow majority (accounting for the confidence-and-supply agreement) could be overturned if the opposition parties plus half-a-dozen Tory MPs ganged up on her. This was not the outcome promised when she called an election to allow her to steamroller the Labour party, the rump of the Lib-Dems and the assertive House of Lords. (It might have been preferable, in hindsight, to take the opportunity to abolish the Lords. With Brexit overshadowing things and the Lords annoying enough Tory backbenchers to top up the Opposition’s block vote in favour of such a move, it would probably have gone through on the nod.)
After a long time when the Government seemed to be avoiding falling apart too much, the Windrush Scandal broke out. It seemed that a large number of Imperial immigrants welcomed into the country in the 1950s, in the days when we did not have computer databases, had not been given computerised records to demonstrate their right to live in the UK. Upon encountering May’s “hostile environment” for illegal migrants when they turned up at their GP’s surgery for a check-up (feeling lucky about getting an appointment) they were reported to the Home Office and deported. Some subsequently died. Arguably May should have resigned for it, but her Home Secretary and one-time deputy Amber Rudd was persuaded to go instead. Happily for Rudd, it turned out the whole thing was an official misunderstanding and she was later reinstated to Cabinet.
This provided a distraction from Failing Grayling not having been keeping an eye on what his rail franchises were up to, preferring to shred their investment plans and carry out ad-hoc re-nationalisations, with the awkward consequence that a large portion of the rail network through a lot of safe Tory seats had just collapsed. Grayling said he couldn’t be expected to know anything about this, which while in keeping with Leave policy of “This country has had enough of experts,” (actually a fairly reasonable statement, but easily misconstrued) did raise certain questions as to what he was for, and if perhaps he should save the taxpayer some money by resigning.
May sat down with her Cabinet at an away-weekend in Buckinghamshire (where the Prime Minister has a country seat) to hammer out an EU strategy. With nine months to go this was not exactly an ideal time to produce a strategy, but one was produced which she claimed came with the backing of her entire cabinet. Later it transpired that the agreement was because the Cabinet had been told that if they disagreed they’d have to quit and if they quit they’d have to walk 2½ miles on a hot day to find out what the Sunday service from Little Kimble station is like, owing to them no longer being entitled to the Ministerial car which brought them to Chequers or the Ministerial ‘phone that would allow them to call a loved one for a lift. In view of how the rail network was performing under Grayling, it seemed preferable to smile and nod. Once back in London such problems were gone, and the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson duly followed the Brexit Secretary David Davis out of the door in less than 48 hours.
Her replacement Brexit Secretary lasted until Autumn and a discovery that Dover is a major port that would have to be considered in any customs arrangements with the EU. This meant that he was overqualified and, finding that reality was incompatible with the Brexit deal that he wanted, he was obliged to resign.
And yet, the hackneyed old phrase that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” seemed to apply in this situation. By the end of the summer, she was relaxing. She spent a tour of Africa doing little dance routines with the locals – almost more lovably for the moves being bad. Playing on this, the party put on ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” for her walk onto the platform to deliver her conference speech – and she jived on stage to it, confident that this part of 2018 could hardly go worse than 2017. It went down well. The Prime Minister does not have to be outgoing, but people like to believe that the Person In Charge is human on some level.
The deal finally came home in October 2018. It was not well-sold. Any message about its marvellous content (which omitted our future trade agreement because there had been no time to agree one) was swept aside in the face of the clause that dealt with the problem of the Irish border. This said that the UK could not leave the EU properly until the border was sorted. Theresa had apparently asked for it. In London, she was told it was terrible. A visit to Northern Ireland saw her tell the Irish that it was terrible, on which point they begged to differ. The DUP intimated that they could not support it; the Tory backbench intimated ditto; a December Commons vote on it (necessary if the UK was to leave in March) was pulled and the party decided to have a vote of confidence in her. She survived – quite well – and under party rules of the time was safe for another 12 months.
She got out of it partly by promising not to fight any more elections, which seemed a difficult promise to keep when heading into a year highly likely to feature a snap election. Aside from any sudden discoveries that it would help if the Government had a majority, the sharks were circulating and threatening a Vote of Confidence in the House of Commons on the performance of the Government.
Grayling kindly provided a distraction with his ferry contracts. To provide additional ferry capacity in case of queues at Dover after a no-deal Brexit, he asked some ferry companies to tender in a hurry to provide boats. Based on the responses he awarded three companies contracts. The Department for Tranport’s due diligence processes, never that widely-praised in the UK transport industry, came under fire when it turned out that one contract had been awarded on the basis that the financial backer had assumed the company at issue would arrange for the chosen UK harbour to be dredged and some ships to be acquired at some point before Brexit Day. After the backer realised that this probably wasn’t the case they withdrew and the Government had to justify the press criticism by cancelling the contract. Then Eurotunnel pointed out that they had a first-refusal right to provide cross-Channel transport by international treaty and had once operated ferries. The Government said that they had to let the contracts in a hurry and hadn’t had time to wait for Eurotunnel to find boats. Eurotunnel said that “No Deal” had been Government policy for two years, during which a proper procurement process could have been run, and on the back of this the Government folded and handed over £33million for capacity improvements to support Eurotunnel’s adaptation to a post-Brexit world – not, it was enthusiastically pointed out, as simple settlement of a legal claim. On this small legal nicety the Peninsular & Oriental Line proceeded to raise M’Learned Friends to sue the Government for their £33million state subsidy to adapt to a post-Brexit world, in accordance with EU rules on state support.
When the Meaningful Vote came round it was hard to believe the estimates as to how badly she would do – it was tempting to assume that in the end everyone would troop through the “Yes” lobby on the grounds that there was no other plan. But if that was the betting, it backfired badly. The defeat finally knocked Ramsey MacDonald off the platform of “Worst Parliamentary Defeat in Relatively Recent History”, with the Government managing the unusual achievement of losing by a greater margin than the number of votes cast for May’s flagship achievement – 432 against, 202 for, margin of 232. The pound showed some brief signs of recovery from its post-referendum doldrums, which have made the country attractive for foreign investors willing to buy heavily discounted assets in a nation on the verge of recession on the offchance that it’ll all be worth something again one day. The DUP refrained from following their confidence and supply agreement on the grounds that the deal did not comply with their Irish red lines, but backed her in the following confidence motion.
Her International Trade Secretary failed to provide a worthwhile distraction from this when his success at negotiating substitute trade deals was unveiled – he had made four. His negotiations with Japan were rumoured to have been difficult, with the Japanese having tried to get far more out of him (so far as the Government wasn’t already bending over backwards to subsidise Japanese industry anyway) than they had obtained in their deal with the EU. His deal with the Faroe Islands was subject to considerable amusement, although he has not managed to persuade his Home Office colleagues to adopt the Faroe Islands visa system of demanding that tourists justify their existence economically by carrying out unpaid labour (a policy which has received many plaudits from the left-wing press, so would be an undoubted vote-winner).
Further attempts to get the deal through the Commons were unsuccessful to a lesser degree, although still in Ramsey MacDonald territory. The second attempt, excluding abstentions, was only four votes worse than the great Parliamentary vote of 1640 when Parliament ordered King Charles I to have the Earl of Stafford beheaded if he ever wanted to see his tax revenues again. The Commons proved little help in suggesting alternatives, although both a customs union (waste of a good Brexit) and a second referendum lost narrowly enough to suggest that a proper whipping operation would have carried them over the line. With this done, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock suggested that now everyone had finished playing the Government should be allowed to go back to ramming its deal into the Commons in the face of losses by a margin of 50 or so votes. This was inconvenienced by the Speaker prohibiting the Government from wasting Parliamentary time by bringing back the same motion every few weeks; his argument was on the basis of custom and practice dating back to about the time of the Earl of Stafford (which for some reason the Press claimed also hadn’t been used since then). Opposition parties suggested compromise, ideally about a year previously, and Corbyn invited cross-party talks.
The one thing that the Commons could agree on was that a no-deal Brexit was a no-no, so in the face of insistence by ex-Remain pro-Leave members of the Cabinet (rather overdoing their performances) that a no-deal Brexit was an essential negotiating tactic (presumably with the Commons, as the EU had stopped negotiating in October) two extensions were sought. The first was naturally short; there was some pressure for the second to be a year, but Grayling threatened to resign if it was more than a few weeks. Most people would have viewed the Government well rid of him, but May based her extension application on keeping him in Cabinet. It was one of the larger signs that she was too weak to carry on much longer.
May was saved from herself by an EU insistence that the country take part in the Euro-elections instead of ignoring the campaign on the assumption that something would come up by the 1st of July (when the new Parliament will convene, now complete with British MEPs). Her policy that the country would leave the EU on the 1st of July with a deal that wouldn’t pass, but couldn’t leave without a deal and couldn’t stay because of a shortage of MEPs, was liable to create the sort of farcical constitutional crisis rarely seen since Charles I invaded his own kingdom, paying both attacking and defending armies (at least until the defending one ran away); it was a problem that couldn’t even have been resolved with a new Calendar Act indefinitely postponing 1st July 2019 by inventing new months until the problem went away. It had the especially ridiculous feature that it would be entirely unnecessary and self-inflicted. She dealt with this sort of thing by making a TV address informing the public that she was on their side, unlike their elected representatives. Remarkably, and perhaps reflecting the contempt that the population held her in, no MPs were shot as a result of this ill-judged speech.
She limped on with a final decision to discuss the matter with the Labour Party, which wanted a second referendum and a customs union. It hid the sight of Failing Grayling cancelling his remaining shipping contracts at a loss of £80million and being sued by two bidders for the East Midlands rail franchise over whether he could make them liable for pension deficits. As May wanted her deal (there is no other deal available without starting over, which is not allowed) and believed a second referendum would be a breach of trust, there was only one way these talks could end. After six weeks all involved stopped pretending otherwise and May partially capitulated on the second referendum – although not enough to win over any Remain MPs. The response from an old party grandee – the great Michael Heseltine who had brought down Thatcher – was to announce that he was voting Lib-Dem in the Euro Election, obliging the party to suspend his whip. A second referendum annoyed the Leave side, and particularly upset those members of her Cabinet who believed that they were doing a very good pretence of being pro-Leave. She was invited into an office to meet some men in grey suits, who lightly drew to her attention that having to withdraw the whip from people who had nearly been party leader was deeply embarrassing. She would have to take the responsibility.
She nearly made it through the ensuing speech to the public without bursting into tears.
It was a late moment of humanity reminiscent of the moment when Gordon Brown walked out of Downing Street with his wife and two small boys, although while the small boys might have helped Comrade Gordy our outgoing Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury would not have got further by breaking down in tears more often at the despatch box. Generally she has played a shockingly bad hand as well as possible, with the main question being why she agreed to play it at all.
The contrast from 2016 in John Crace’s summary of her way of leaving office is striking – after many columns describing her as the Maybot and jokingly observing on a negotiating session that she was photographed holding with four plant pots. One of her bigger critics, in a rather satisfied manner, remarked that the ABBA-dancing prime minister had now met her Waterloo.
Ultimately her fate was settled by a combination of King Henry II’s bodged invasion of Ireland – occupying but not properly annexing it – and the activities of a Daesh bomber in Manchester. It is an unfortunate demonstration of the holistic approach to history.
She leaves no legacy, except a demonstration of what happens when you abandon ideas and reduce politics to spin, presentation and “policy-making by print deadline” for twenty-five years. The UK Government never managed to work out why it was in Europe, why this is a good thing and how to grasp the tiller to orientate development in accordance with the wishes of the second-largest economy in the group (although there were reportedly some ambitions for the 2017 turn at running the European Council, which was cancelled for obvious reasons). Nor did it ever challenge Press arguments to the contrary, with Blair’s enthusiasm for Europe being accompanied by a quiet hope that someone would spontaneously notice that the results spoke for themselves. Cameron’s solution was to create a new Eurosceptic European Parliamentary grouping – which has met with some success, possibly partly because his MEPs lost no time in handing it over to the Czechs (who know how to play politics). Having no ideas about what to do with a “Leave” vote or how to justify remaining anyway left May attempting to lose an election by presenting a manifesto devoid of popular memorable policies. Now she has crashed and burned, her apparent successors have no constructive suggestions; the only policies thus far mooted are a no-deal Brexit and the cancellation of High Speed 2. There is no suggestion that the tattered remnants of the party have any ideas for appealing to the wider country, though having lost the next election for being divided, incompetent and unable to solve actual problems will lose no time in blaming it on a failure to obtain a sufficiently hard Brexit. The noises from the membership suggest that Remoaniacs joining to argue for re-joining the EU, resuming the party’s social liberalism and supporting the poor in bettering themselves will be expelled for “entryism”, which does nothing to encourage anyone to dilute the current attitudes exuding from that direction.
The lobbying campaign for the pot plants to succeed her has, as yet, met with little success. Despite him having few obvious diplomatic skills and no obvious ideas for how he’s going to deal with the Irish Question, Boris is the front-runner – provided that he survives Labour realising that they could blame the London Crossrail debacle on him.
For some reason, May believes that there will be more female prime ministers of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the future. Unless Boris is overturned and a woman is elected in July, if Brexit goes through in October (especially on a “no-deal” basis) it seems rather more likely that she will be both the second and the last before Scottish independence. Still, she can dream.
The rest of us can dream back to the happy days of 2015, which will not be returning any time soon.