It is time to ring down the curtain on the troubled rule of Theresa May.  May became Prime Minister as the result of a series of flukes, which a scriptwriter would have dismissed as too implausible to work.  She was home secretary in the Cameron Government, and cannot have entertained serious hopes beyond retaining her Cabinet position.  While Cameron ruled, that was it.  During the referendum campaign, May signaled support for Remain, and thereafter did no campaigning.  In the unkind words of Richard Littlejohn (about former Prime Minister Gordon Brown), she “hid behind the sofa.”  When the votes came in, and it was clear that Britain had voted for Leave, Cameron announced at 8:30 that morning that he would stand down and that there would be a leadership election.  Five names came forward, May being one.  Liam Fox was knocked out in the first round of voting, and it was widely expected that the winner would be Boris Johnson or Michael Gove.  To universal shock, Gove announced that Johnson was unfit to be leader.  “He intended murder and committed suicide,” for Johnson in a dignified manner stood down from the contest, and Gove was forced to follow suit.  That left Andrea Leadsom, who made a crass and universally condemned comment on the psychological difficulties of being childless.  She, too, stood down, and Theresa May was left victrix ludorum—without winning a single event.  It is worth recalling that Donald Trump became President after unhorsing a dozen opponents in a serial joust.

May was then charged with implementing a policy she did not believe in, Brexit, and had not campaigned for.  For long on she relied on her Delphic utterance, “Brexit means Brexit.”  What did she mean?  No clear answer ever came.  Eventually, the public caught on to the meaning.  The reputation of the Delphic oracle depended on being, well, Delphic.  That was the trick.  Since that point ambiguity was her prime resource.  May seemed to be in line for the Jimmy Porter award, “For vaguery in the field.”  Her purpose was in fact more adroitly crafted.  She relied on the strategy of the arch, the most prominent part of which is the keystone.  The keystone is commandingly placed; it relies in fact upon the opposed pressures of the shoulder wedges.  If either side fails, the keystone collapses.  So the leader’s game is to lean to either side, to keep the pressures balanced.  May’s Cabinet was flawlessly designed to fail; it was incapable of reaching a coherent conclusion.  “Gouverner, c’est choisir” said Pierre Mendès-France.  May had decided not to choose and therefore was excused from governing.  In political terms, the shoulder wedges included Boris Johnson (foreign secretary) and Philip Hammond (chancellor of the exchequer).  One stands for the open sea, as Churchill did, and the other for the closest possible relationship with the Continent.  This is an old dispute, still vibrant.  More than a century ago, Lord Salisbury’s policy on Europe was “engage, but do not commit.”  On his retirement Lord Lansdowne took over the reins of policy, leading to the still controversial Entente Cordiale.  That was commitment, and it took Britain to the brink of war and over.

So there was a hard inner meaning to May’s policy.  But that meaning rested on a misconception, that a term lifted from British foreign policy in the 19th century—the balance of power—could be transferred to the controlling of the Cabinet.  Foreign countries are independent entities; Cabinet ministers are appointed by the Prime Minister.  So the Cabinet balance was easily read as a way of avoiding a decision.  May bleached meaning out of Brexit, and the Cabinet became a covert battlefield.

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

The ignorant armies have however picked up the direction of policy.  The British stance in negotiations has been compliant to the E.U., never challenging their rules of engagement.  Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, a man who knows better than anyone else the power and tactics of the E.U., issued a stark warning to Britain when his book Adults in the Room came out: “Whatever you do, don’t negotiate.”  He meant that the retiarius would always defeat the gladiator, especially when the gladiator is not much of a swordsman anyway.  It is not May’s métier.

May’s policy was seen as “BRINO,” or “Brexit in name only.”  “Soft Brexit,” the cant term for arrangements so easy that they are virtually the same as staying in the E.U., became a cracked code.  “Hard Brexit,” for the Remainers, was a synonym for bad.  It is nursery rhetoric, soft equals good, hard equals bad.  The argument shifted from Brexit to the transition or implementation stage, with the battle arena the House of Lords.

The Lords, as a body, are the foremost regiment to fight against Brexit.  They have, if not Guards’ discipline, superb esprit de corps.  They fight under a banner with a strange device, Remain, a policy backed by the 100 LibDem peers who correspond exactly to their predecessors in the peers versus people clash of a century ago.  One member, the present (9th) Duke of Wellington, mimics his great ancestor in speaking for the ultras in the post-Waterloo years.

The through line of family tradition can go the other way: Viscount Ridley came out with a magnificent philippic against his fellow peers, “this gilded, crimson echo-chamber of Remain, this neo-Jacobite hold-out for the Euro-king across the water.”  (It is a potent allusion.  An elderly Scots friend told me that her father, at the dinner table, would pass his wine glass over the water jug, signifying his allegiance to the Stewarts.)  The Ridley family has form.  A direct ancestor, Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of Rochester, was burned at the stake in Oxford High Street for heresy during the Marian persecution of Protestants.  Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester, was burned alongside him, and said: “Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man, for we shall this day light such a candle in England as I trust by God’s grace shall never be put out.”   A later descendant, Nicholas Ridley, was sacked by Margaret Thatcher for saying of Euro-federalism, “This is all a German racket designed to take over the whole of Europe.  It has to be thwarted.”  Readers of Chronicles may judge if the passions that animated the Ridleys over the years have yet to be assuaged.

The flawless Cabinet design came under unprecedented stress levels when two members resigned.  One, Sir Michael Fallon, had been charged with repeatedly laying his hand on a woman’s knee 15 years earlier, and in the hue and cry that followed he was obliged to confess this and similar offenses.  Cato the Censor would have had a hard time making his name in today’s climate.  The Prime Minister could not be seen to condone this record of shame, and the defence secretary had to go.  The two replacements in the Cabinet turned out to be Brexiteers of the Leaver persuasion, so May lost her perfect balance.  Her plan for a partnership with the Customs Union, better understood by its ancestral title Zollverein, was shot down by the reformed Cabinet.  The Prime Minister was then driven to the ignominy of inviting all 214 Conservative backbenchers to Downing Street to talk over options, in batches of 50.  Government by focus group is not dead.

But the death of the government cannot be delayed for much longer.  The hard right of the Conservative Party will veto any plan coming from Downing Street, and the Prime Minister has little personal support left.  No Deal looms ever nearer.  Theresa May has the strength of her limitations, and no other strength.


[Image via Kuhlmann / MSC [CC BY 3.0]]