All learning, it is said, is a form of humiliation. There is no doubt that Theresa May has been humiliated by the events of the last few days. She has lost her majority, she has lost her authority and she may yet lose her job. Yet for now she remains in harness and she has the opportunity to learn from what has happened.
Just a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister stood confidently above all that she surveyed. Her popularity was stratospheric, her lead in the polls was eye-popping. Her decision to call an early election was widely praised by the pundits as smart politics. It is important to recall this because many of the same pundits are heaping derision upon her (not pausing to blush that they also completely misread what was going on).
As you would expect of someone who lives in Shoreditch, I was unconvinced by the Prime Minister long before it was fashionable: see here and here. A hipster May doubter, you might call me. I have to say, however, that her positive virtues are now being completely forgotten. No one becomes Home Secretary for six years by accident, let alone Prime Minister. She has serious ability, even if many are ignoring that now.
One of the Prime Minister’s great strengths is as an analyst of problems. She focuses on the immediate task at hand and seeks solutions. So, charged with delivering Brexit, she identified the parameters and sought an approach consistent with those parameters. You can argue with the tone she struck while doing so (I certainly would – I was appalled, for example, at the “citizens of nowhere” jibe) but the content was grounded in an acute understanding of what the public expected from the vote.
If the Prime Minister is to stay in office, she must analyse again. The country declined to give her the mandate she sought. She is not going to be able to act unilaterally; instead, she is going to have to consult with different groupings inside and outside the Conservative party (on Brexit and other subjects) to broker an agreed way forward.
This is going to require a whole new way of conducting government. The Prime Minister is going to need to chair rather than dictate, to shepherd the pares rather than be the primus. She and her trusted lieutenants will need to invest time making sure the recalcitrant and disaffected are kept on board with her plans. She is not going to be able to get her own way on everything and sometimes she is going to need to push through compromises that she personally finds unpalatable.
Theresa May might seek to build this into the way of conducting government. She might well consider formal committees with party representatives from Scotland and Wales. This would have the additional bonus of driving the SNP wild with rage. It might give a way to build DUP representation in also.
The government will be able to get relatively little legislation through, and, with one unavoidable exception, nothing controversial. Brexit will need to be the centrepiece. Theresa May urgently needs to agree principles of engagement with all flanks of her party on this. There is no Commons majority for the idea that no deal is better than a bad deal (the DUP will insist on a soft border with the Republic of Ireland, for example), and this will need to be junked. While the decision on freedom of movement probably cannot be revisited, she should rethink urgently her other previous red lines, such as not accepting the ECJ’s jurisdiction. Early movement on protecting the position of current EU residents is probably required also. Much of this will be highly unpalatable to the headbangers, but the Conservatives simply don’t have the numbers to force that through. They will take some persuading, I’m sure.
It will be a very different government from the one that she has run to date. It will take humility and patience. Theresa May strikes me as having the patience. The humility is no doubt a work in progress.
I firmly believe that Theresa May has a strong sense of duty. Many would have resigned office on Friday morning but I believe that she has stayed in office out of a sense that would be letting the nation down. If she wants to serve the nation best, she will need to make some dramatic adjustments. If she is allowed the chance and she manages it, she might even find that she becomes a better Prime Minister.