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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Brexit is exposing Theresa May's worst traits

The British prime minister is not up to the task. But, asks Damien McElroy, is there a contender who can replace her?

May's promise to stay on beyond 2022 has set the hounds running on her premiership. Reuters
May's promise to stay on beyond 2022 has set the hounds running on her premiership. Reuters

Foreign travel is particularly perilous for British prime ministers. The combination of flying at close quarters with the press and working out-of-sync hours is a chink in the armour. Margaret Thatcher was in Paris in 1990 when she declared, after a leadership challenge, “I fight on, I fight to win”. The comment rang hollow and she was gone in days.

In Tokyo last week Theresa May made a gaffe that, while not yet fatal, is deeply wounding. By announcing that she would contest the next general election, she tore up an uneasy compact with her party. There had been an acceptance that she could oversee the Brexit negotiations and then leave in 2019. A promise to stay on beyond 2022 has set the hounds running on her premiership.

There had been a two-fold premise behind Mrs May’s remaining in office despite falling short of a majority in June’s election. Tories fear a new election would return the socialist Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister. Most on the right think that would mean a Venezuelan-style decline for Britain. But after misjudging the mood in June, they don’t trust the electorate would listen to that message. Changing leader was viewed as a risk not worth taking. Second, there is no credible alternative Conservative leader. If nothing else Mrs May is a steely character who could oversee the hardships of Brexit while giving time for a new leader to emerge.

As with the stages of grief, there has been a shift of mood from the raw anger after the election. The Spectator, a house journal for the Conservatives, had gone to press last week with the cover asking: “Can you forgive her?” But the defence its writers offered for Mrs May was minimal. Matthew Parris, a former Tory MP, wrote: “If, by proving powerless to stop Britain totally messing [Brexit] up, Mrs May can teach her country humility, she will deserve forgiveness.”

Is that good enough? It is hard to believe.

A far more likely outcome is that Brexit exposes all the worst traits in Mrs May. It is already plain that the negotiation process is totally misconceived. The talks are bogged down in details. European commissioners gleefully rebuff London’s offers of compromise, apparently confident that as time runs out the British will capitulate.

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The most biting satire of the summer has a Brexit Bulldog politician, David Davis, leaving messages on Mrs May’s answer phone detailing his latest fiasco as unalloyed triumph. Meanwhile the Fleet Street editorials preach defiance in ever more shrill tones. Mishaps litter the post-election political landscape. British government ministries are simultaneously overwhelmed by the challenges of adjustments and incapable of executing reforms. Mrs May has cleared Downing Street of its most obdurate staffers but that amounts to technical change. The dogged and unimaginative personality of Mrs May means row follows row without any intervention from the top. It is as if disaster is pre-ordained. As Mr Parris alludes, the only comfort is a cleansing effect on all concerned.

It is hard to think of any successful parallel to the approach the Europeans and British are pursuing. For a start, what is needed is a heads of agreement on after Brexit. Leadership of the heroic type offered by Winston Churchill in the Second World War could put a stop to the disastrous cycle. Thrashing out the new relationship between Britain and Europe could be relatively straight forward. Such a deal would be forged at a Yalta-style summit between top leaders. Ideally there would be no bureaucrats in the room. Once equipped with the pillars of a new pact the officials could work out the details across the negotiating table.

There is nothing that suggests Mrs May could perform this magic trick. She has no personal warmth. She does not appear to engage well with other leaders. The Sunday Times last week quoted one official who pleaded for Mrs May to break the deadlock with a round of European shuttle diplomacy. Instead Mrs May travelled to Japan were her hosts politely declined to open trade talks with Britain. It was a failure that was obscured by her bombshell announcement about the next election.

The mantle of leadership is there to be seized. The problem is that no one has stepped forward to do so. Observe the hunger that propelled Emmanuel Macron to the French presidency and ask: Is there anyone in the British Conservatives who has that drive? The answer must be “no”.

The task of ousting Mrs May requires a contender who makes the case for an innovative approach. Someone who advances a new form of politics. Someone who can radiate charisma equal to the historic challenges facing Britain. The Conservatives meet for their annual conference in a month. Whatever else, it will not now be an occasion for forgiveness.

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