Theresa May – the wrong woman for her time?

Theresa May – the wrong woman for her time?

So this is how constitutional settlements are brokered: not at a measured pace with Olympian detachment and the wisdom of Solomon but at high speed in a blind funk with a deal cobbled together in shadowy alcoves. It’s not pretty.

It’s also something that the Prime Minister must hate. Successful governing politicians who have to answer to the electorate often try to avoid making hard choices. Angela Merkel has been so effective at this that her name has been verbed in German. Theresa May has adopted the same approach throughout her premiership, seeking to make her own views unknowable, letting the views of others percolate through until the decision makes itself.

She started by setting out her parameters for Brexit, first in outline form in the summer of 2016 and then in more detail in her Lancaster House speech in January 2017. After that point she has simply let matters unfold before her, allowing the EU, the ERG, the DUP and anyone else who so chose to put their views forward, and then just waited. When the deal emerged from the primordial gloop of opinions, she no doubt expected it to slouch onto the statute books with a horrid inevitability.

This came to a shuddering halt last week when her deal was rejected by a majority of 230. The deal now looks very evitable: indeed, it looks hard to resuscitate. Theresa May’s entire approach has been refuted by events. She needs to rethink and fast. To fail to do so would be to make a decision by default or see the decision taken out of her hands completely by Parliament.

Unfortunately, fast thinking is not one of Theresa May’s fortes. It is her temperament to consider evidence thoroughly and slowly in order to come up with the optimal policy. Having determined that she has already come up with the optimal policy, her response is not to rethink but to decide how she can repackage it. In her mind, it seems, nothing has changed.

Something, however, has changed. Her command of Parliament has been demonstrated to be illusory and her authority has scattered across the floor of the House of Commons like pearls from a broken necklace. She should be scrambling to gather what she can back together again.

There is a hard deadline of 29 March 2019 and unless something is done, Britain is going to leave the EU without a deal. Theresa May has given no indication that she regards that as a desirable or acceptable outcome, yet it is emerging as her policy by default.

Sometimes it is better to be wrong quickly than right slowly. With a hard deadline, a House of Commons that has fractured into six or more groupings and the nerves of loyal MPs fraying, the political imperative is to provide a strong lead in a direction that has some chance of attracting new support.

Her most successful predecessors understood the importance of initiative. When David Cameron was defeated in Parliament in a vote over military action in Syria, he immediately stood up to announce that he recognised the vote and would not proceed with the idea (even though Labour had not ruled out supporting a more restricted version of military intervention). A defeat that might otherwise have been career-ending was brushed off as essentially unimportant. Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher would similarly have looked to take the bull by the horns.

Theresa May has instead simply languished in Downing Street consumed by inertia, continuing with her strategy of making her policy the only one capable of adoption. But it is not. It is now just one policy among many that could be adopted and one, moreover, that has been decisively rejected.

She seems to be relying on the possibility that her opponents will remain divided. Perhaps they will. That does not, however, seem particularly likely, especially since one thing that her opponents in the House of Commons can all agree on is that they should collectively have more say. It therefore seems more and more likely that Parliament will snatch the reins of Brexit for itself.

If that happens, the government will become curiously almost irrelevant. Conservative party discipline has been stretched beyond the limit ever since the EU referendum was first announced and despite a supposed restoration of collective Cabinet responsibility in July 2018, it has been honoured in the breach rather than the observance. It is hard to see how it can be reimposed this side of a resolution of the Article 50 departure process.

By that stage, the fissures in the Conservative party may have widened beyond the point of repair. That’s a downside of their leader not making difficult decisions. The indecision might end up consuming them all.

Alastair Meeks

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