I have seen many governments up close and personal throughout my career. The May government has been no exception.
It’s a privilege to do what I do. I never forget that. Despite the torture of the last few weeks, it is always very clear to me that those who hold the highest office in the land don’t wear that responsibly lightly. It is simply impossible to do that.
Theresa May has been no exception. She is often compared to Gordon Brown. Perhaps rightly. Both are daughters and sons of the church; both sought high office; both found themselves in Number 10 during the toughest of times.
While history may well be kinder to Gordon Brown, what will it make of Theresa May? The woman who called out her party in the mid 2000s as the ‘nasty party’ had a point. She embraced David Cameron’s modernising agenda but as his Home Secretary established a personal political brand that was all about controlling immigration.
While she backed ‘remain’ in the EU referendum she did with such a sotto voce demeanour that no one really heard. It was an approach pitch perfect to take the leadership and become Prime Minister as all her opponents bit the dust.
May has a likeliness to Obama, too. Such promise undelivered. The former President’s political peak was the night of his election. His soaring rhetoric the night he won was never to be equalled.
Similarly, 13 July 2016, the day Theresa May delivered her first speech as Prime Minister on the steps of 10 Downing Street would not be surpassed. Her clarion call to address the ‘burning injustices’ in society had many Labour MPs applauding.
For those first 100 days as premier she was unassailable. The new ‘Maggie’
But subsequent use of the Downing Street lectern – calling an early general election or castigating MPs for not voting for her Brexit deal – turned out calamitous.
For those first 100 days as premier she was unassailable. The new ‘Maggie’ they cheered. But the doubts set in. Over that summer, the press started digging out the back catalogue of blogs from her then chief of staff Nick Timothy as a way of finding out just what the Prime Minister thought.
When Timothy was sent packing after the disastrous 2017 general election, it became clear his ideas had indeed been her guiding principle. On Brexit in that election she had continually uttered ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ – the very words he had crafted. But did she actually believe them. What did she think herself?
She would keep everyone guessing until almost the last moment. The ‘zigzag’ she needed to keep the show on the road between the Brexiteers and the remainers boxed May in all the way.
In the late summer of 2016, I asked one of her key advisers what she was aiming for. He told me she wanted to see the softest Brexit possible but that markets and business would hear some pretty tough rhetoric in the weeks and months ahead. He was not wrong. Accused of being ‘citizens of nowhere’ just a few weeks later, some in Wall Street began to vote with their feet and move more than one trillion pounds out of the Square Mile.
Some have called Theresa May the ‘Brexit Prime Minister’ – it’s a fair call
But the deal Theresa May did negotiate was the softest possible arrangement with the EU. Most business in the City could back it, albeit it had little to commend it for the services sector. Most captains of finance just wanted the security of a deal. But the hardliners in the ERG ‘party within’ the Tory party would just not let go.
May’s attempt to square the EU with the factions across the Tory benches who had been fighting themselves for more than 50 years was always going to blow politics apart. It was amazing to watch her triangulate our politics for so long. The can was well and truly kicked down the road.
But the wider problem we now have is that the trust between business and our politicians has reached the lowest point I can remember, and it’s going to take something remarkable to build it back.
Europe has consumed every Tory leader in my lifetime – Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron, Theresa May. It shows no signs of stopping. Catharsis appears impossible to deliver.
All the promise of July 2016 evaporated. Some have called Theresa May the ‘Brexit Prime Minister’ – it’s a fair call. Government and our politicians have had no oxygen for anything else the past three years. What a tragedy for the country.
Maybe it’s true all political careers end in failure. But I think it’s better to have tried.