Thursday, 24 January 2019

A lighthouse in the fog: In praise of Theresa May

When David Cameron resigned, the Tory party broke. Cameron, for all his faults, was the veneer of competence. On his departure it became fightingly obvious that there was no credible successor. Certainly no-one of the calibre and gravitas necessary to push through Brexit.

As someone who has fought long and hard for Brexit, in any other circumstances, I might have demanded a Brexiter be in charge of it. But when faced with the grim prospect of Andrea Loathsome, Gove or the odious Johnson, Theresa May was a no-brainer. May was the closest we could get to adult supervision.

For me it was a leap of faith. Though she had been on the remain side of the argument, she could hardly have been said to be visible. For the most part she'd kept well out of it so she wasn't tainted by the referendum. She was worth a punt.

Though many leavers suspected she would sell out Brexit, she's the main reason we've got this far. For all that the headbangers think she's a remain plant, Theresa May is the one who triggered Article 50, did what she could to fend off the various legal challenges, and faced down the House of Lords. She passed all the relevant legislation and got the ball rolling.

There have been times when I've been downright furious at Theresa May. She has made some remarkably bad choices, not least in who she chose as advisers. She has made all of the avoidable errors. But for all that, for now, we are still in the game. We might very well have cause to question her competence but it goes back to that original question; would any of the alternatives have done a better job?

Much of our predicament is to do with the fact that this government never really understood the sequencing of Brexit nor how the EU machine works. They never understood that this wasn't really a negotiation. Our job was simply to choose from a list of limited options and firm up the details. It's taken Theresa May nearly two years to get it, but now it looks very much like she's the only one who gets it. It's been a long hard road for her but she got there while parliament is still at sixes and sevens and the opposition still doesn't know what a customs union is.

For what it's worth, Theresa May has done everything she was supposed to do. She has rammed Brexit through a generally hostile parliament, facing challenges to her authority from all sides. She has persevered to deliver a withdrawal agreement which is now ready to sign.

The deal itself is suboptimal and is largely a piece of triangulation but she has at least attempted to reconcile the demands of Brexit with the realities of international and EU trade - which is more than her Brexier backbenchers ever did. Most of her messes are messes of her own making but with politics being what it is it was unrealistic to expect competence. Theresa May's mediocrity is a lighthouse in the fog.

To my mind the job of delivering Brexit called for a bland functionary. I can't think of a person more suited to it. Brexiters penning their dismal screeds in the Spectator may have called for boldness and vision but by that they mean a delusional jingoistic prat waffling about global Britain and free trade which we can well do without. Half a clue as to our destination might have been helpful but I've long since lowered my expectations.

When the history of Brexit is written it will paint a fairly accurate portrait of Theresa May; the ambitious steady careerist whose rise to the highest office was little more than an accident of circumstances. Though wholly ill-equipped for the job and hopelessly out of her depth, she carried out her obligation to the country with as much honour as you can ever expect from a politician.

There is now a deal on the table. I don't especially like it, Brexiters hate it and parliament is not expecially keen either. But the deal is really only a product of our own political dysfunction. Intransigence and ignorance on all sides could not have produced anything different. The road to Brexit was heavily mined and with ambushes every step of the way this is about as good as it gets. May has done her bit. It's now up to parliament to do theirs.

Whether or not Theresa May is the right person to lead the tories into the next election and to negotiate the future relationship with the EU is the next major debate the Tory party faces. I suspect the same dilemma still remains. For all that we all might prefer a more capable, better advised leader, does a viable alternative present itself? It might then simply come down to one question. Can she beat Jeremy Corbyn? I reckon she could, albeit by a whisker.

May has managed to come through a long and arduous process with a great deal of dignity, reserving her own misgivings about Brexit, while keeping both extremes of her party at bay. She has done so with stamina and surprising resilience. For whatever else we might say about the lady, she has been a loyal public servant who did as she was instructed by the people - which is more than you can say of our Parliament.

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