Never underestimate a woman, especially a wounded woman. Theresa May seems to be the living embodiment of this dictum. Ever since her election victory – which was not untinged with humiliation as she lost her parliamentary majority – the commentariat has been speculating about her replacement: first it was rumoured that she would be gone by the end of the week, then by the end of the month, then by Tory Conference in October, then Christmas, and now a consensus is that she will be replaced within two years. The grossest error in politics is repetition of same mistakes; and pundits commit this error even more frequently than politicians. These very pundits – the self-proclaimed ‘experts’ and ‘analysts’ – who had deriding Jeremy Corbyn have been dismissing Mrs May. They argue that her prospects are woefully diminished and her demise is all but assured. Offering the same wearisome platitudes, these pundits are frantically pursuing after yet another story, however trivial, which could end the premiership of our wounded woman.
No doubt that old radiating lustre over Mrs May has been sullied, perhaps forever. She who once seemed unstoppable has been throttled by the tragedy of her own making. She who once seemed too supreme now seems too supine. She who was once acclaimed for her inflexible determination is now accused of dithering. Yet Mrs May’s mulish fortitude has always come to the fore against so much political hysteria. Against the boorish banter of some of her fairweather friends and most of her fierce foes, she has somehow managed to maintain a level of decorum. Against the manufacturing of dissent, she has prudently presided over the machinery of government. The assiduity with which she has carried on is dignified, and laudably so.
There can be little doubt that future historians will note last months of June and July 2017 as one of the oddest episodes in British political history: a snap election gamble backfired, a premiership of a once-popular woman almost crashed to the halt, a septuagenarian socialist nearly walked into the precincts of Ten Downing Street, a nation suffered three terrorist attacks, and an accidental fire at Grenfell further enflamed an already gruesome political environment. The latter tragedy truly took a toll upon the Prime Minister: hecklers howled before the fatalities were fully known; protesters marched before the dead were discovered; complaints bellowed before the causes were even found; placards were taken up like swords as the ashes of the dead still scorched the air. Hecklers, protestors, placards, complaints – not to mention self-aggrandising and self-satisfying celebrities – are indeed a formula of political firmament. For one terrible moment it seemed as if the rusting Grenfell Tower was more than a symbol of current chaos: it seemed an indication of things to come. And one woman became the object of dislike: Mrs May.
I fail to fathom this irrational dislike of Mrs May: unlike Margaret Thatcher, she is not an ideologue; unlike Tony Blair, she is not a propagandist; unlike David Cameron, she is not of the elites. She, to her immense credit, has met this dislike with dignity. This rather unfashionable word – ‘dignity’ – is more than appropriate. During the Brexit campaign, for example, she had sided with Cameron’s ‘Remain’ position only out of duty and mostly against her instincts; yet even in her duty, she did not give up decency, for she refused to regurgitate the Remain hysteria which all sensible people knew would never transpire. She is constantly attacked by the Left and – this is not often noted – by the Right. The latter think her disdain for unfettered markets and her concern for ‘social justice’ are contrary to the principles of Toryism. Even as quintessentially conservative an historian as Andrew Roberts wrote that Mrs May is not really a Tory at all. One shudders to think what Dr Roberts would have made of Bolingbroke and Samuel Johnson and Shaftesbury and Disraeli and Baldwin who all believed – rightly or wrongly – in some form of ‘social justice’, and who all have an eminent place in the Tory pantheon. Nigel Farage, as always bedevilling under his own fevered imagination, still iterates that Mrs May is only itching to betray the cause of Brexit. It has yet to occur to him that if she is replaced, then so is her Lancaster House speech, and therewith the cause of True Brexit. It has yet to occur to him that Brexit, without Mrs May, will be so diluted as to be meaningless. If all this was not bad enough, Mrs May is even attacked by her own predecessors, by Cameron implicitly and Osborne explicitly. The former Chancellor’s vendetta against Mrs May began as something amusing, then it became somewhat pitiful, now it has crossed the territory of crassness. Both Cameron and Osborne have probably forgotten that Mrs May is cleaning up the mess they left behind.
Yet with the exception of the powerful 1922 Committee and some of her Cabinet ministers, few have come to her defence. Seldom are the sane defended in times of insanity. As the poet William Yeats wrote: ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity’. Intensity is in the nature of protests. Protesters, feeling the power of numbers, abandon thought and adopt slogans. Insobriety makes way for slogans, and slogans give way to stupidity. This is true not only on the streets, but especially online whence much dislike for Mrs May emerges. Anonymity on the social media allows these bullies to reveal their animalistic instincts. The intense dislike of Mrs May is not, however, limited to hyper-politicised predators online: it comes straight from the top. For not only a Labour propagandist like Owen Jones had doxed the Prime Minister by telling his followers to hound her; not only a Guardianista like Polly Toynbee had gratuitously claimed that almost three-decade-old burnt ‘tomb in the sky’ in Kensington was somehow ‘a monument’ to the legacy of then-not-even-a-year-old premiership; not only have Corbynistas swamped the social media against Mrs May; but this calling for intensity of emotions comes straight from the higher echelons of the Labour Party. Barely a day after the traumatic tragedy of the Grenfell Tower, the Leader of Her Majesty’s so-called Loyal Opposition announced that people’s property be confiscated. This was followed by a revelation that Corbyn’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell – a malevolent Marxist bent upon maligning the entire British state with his immoral ideology – has urged the unions up and down the kingdom to topple the elected Parliament through strikes in the summer.
How can a vicar’s daughter be so disliked by so many? That she is dutiful, no one doubts; that she is patriotic, all know; that she is not a vicious ideologue, even her opponents accept; that she is contemptuous of modern propagandistic techniques, her supporters lament. Of course, the politicians and pundits who attack Mrs May reveal more about themselves than her. The support for her is much larger in the country than within Westminster which remains forever insulated. Mrs May has, after all, won more votes than any Prime Minister since Mrs Thatcher. So the animus which she animates in others is perhaps attributable to the Age of Political Paranoia: firstly, it is due to the values she represents, and secondly, the manner in which she represents them.
From the inception of her premiership after the Brexit referendum, Mrs May took up – and took up unapologetically – the mantle of nationhood. All Tory leaders like to think of themselves from the ‘One Nation’ tradition, though very few actually understand it. Mrs May is an exception. She has understood that ‘One Nation’ Toryism is not a mushy liberalised form of conservatism. She – unlike Heath or Cameron – has understood that Disraeli had placed nationhood as the foundational principle of ‘One Nation’ Toryism. She has understood that Britain’s membership of the European Union – hence its constitutional subordination to a supranational body – was merely an aberration in its thousand years of history. So when Mrs May said that ‘If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word “citizenship” means’, she was only echoing Disraeli, and indeed Disraeli’s master, George Canning. Both Canning and Disraeli had followed in the footsteps of the venerable Burke in extolling British constitutional exceptionalism, and in exalting Britain’s organically grown political institutions. Mrs May early seized upon the unspoken logic behind Brexit: now that Britain finally achieves its constitutional independence, the island must fully revive its parliamentary democracy. But a belief in nationhood effects beyond domestic policy, upon foreign policy. Knowingly or unknowingly, Mrs May’s epochal Lancaster House speech this January – in conjunction with her speech in Philadelphia – positioned British foreign policy as it was in the days of Canning when the island balanced its interests between the Old World and the New, between Europe and the Americas. Canning – who was undoubtedly Britain’s finest Foreign Secretary – had warned against ‘the foolish spirit of romance’ which tempts many a geopolitician, from Metternich to Merkel. So Mrs May has warned against stagnating isolationism and crusading internationalism, against neo-isolationism and neo-conservatism.
We live in the age in which demagogues – whether Trump or Corbyn – perpetuate paranoiac politics; we live in the age in which all nuances fall victim to nuisance. It is not therefore so surprising that many attacks levelled against Mrs May are simply contradictory: she is at once a secret Remainer yet a hard Brexiteer; she is intensifying austerity yet she is too concerned with ‘social justice’; she is secretly a Europhile yet too close to Trump; she is a nationalist yet a globalist. Whatever direction she takes, she is met with malice. These malicious demagogues ignore that there is no contradiction between nationalism and internationalism. Internationalism presupposes the nation. Nor have these malicious demagogues yet gathered that the greatest enemy of capitalism is corporatism. Government should be responsible for little except punishing irresponsibility.
In one field, however, Mrs May deserves to be faulted: she is incredulously archaic in her disdain for ‘Public Relations’. Many around her know that she had long wanted British politics to be rescued from obsession with communications as exemplified by the administrations of Blair and Cameron who both excelled in the exercise of propaganda. She wanted, and still seems to want, a post-P.R. politics. She is oblivious to the fact we live in the age of demagogues in which even the thought of post-P.R. politics is ridiculous, and the pursuit of it is reckless. You are defined by your enemy if you fail to define yourself. This most became apparent during the Grenfell tragedy when Mrs May was thought to be too phlegmatic – dare one say, too English? – in her response. Her opponents hurriedly took advantage; the media quickly encircled the already beleaguered Prime Minister. It must be recorded that amongst those on the Left who were exploiting this human tragedy for political ends, there were some noble exceptions: the deeply humane and thoughtful Revered Richard Coles vowed to ‘a news-fast’ because the media was using the tragedy ‘as a pretext for making Theresa May look uncaring’. In this, alas, they succeeded. Most people in postmodern Britain, or at least in the media, would rather have preferred that Mrs May wept publicly, not privately; that she prayed publicly, not privately. She must not merely act, but she must be seen to act; she must not only be efficient, but seen to be sufficiently emotional; she must not only be calm, but seen to be calm whilst fanning the flames. Stoicism, once an assent in Britain, now only attracts derision. A sober person must, of course, sympathise with her contempt for such a sorry of affairs, but she has only two options: she can either play the game or be out of it.
In the age of political Quixotes, a reserved woman can only seem robotic; in the age of political lunacy, a sane woman can only seem boring. Mrs May, in spite of her inveterate decency, must learn that demagoguery cannot be countered with decorum. Her position, however, is nearly not as fragile as the commentariat thinks. Had she fallen, she would have been a pitiable figure. That she boldly told the Tories, ‘I got us into this mess, I’m going to get us out of it’, and that she continues to govern in this spirit, she remains a woman to be reckoned with. A strong woman is only made stronger with wounds. Her strength is not exhausted, her willpower not extinguished. No doubt the electoral humiliation of her own making has mauled her reputation; the old veneration has vapoured away. Her reputation can still be resuscitated if she makes Brexit a success and Britain proud. It’s not that Mrs May has been granted probation by the Tories, but the Tories themselves are on probation. Only if they allow the Prime Minister to deliver Brexit will the Tories be received again in the approbation of the nation.
Brexit had thrust the nation’s brooding classes into bedlam. Mrs May alone emerged with a clear vision her nation. Full of patriotism and purpose, exuding diligence and decency, she still appears to be the only one with a realistic programme – both in domestic and foreign policies – for post-Brexit Britain. Her highly efficient administrative skills have always been recognised: her razor-sharp eye for details borders upon pedantry. She is gifted with Thatcherite work-ethic. Her current position is, curiously enough, not unlike that of Mrs Thatcher in her first term: she has little choice but to appoint her opponents to the Cabinet, she is implementing historical policies whose results few can predict, she knows that some of her backbenchers are openly sharping their knives. Though wounded she remains, only time would tell whether the wounds will strengthen or soften her.
Against so many challenges that are enough to crumble any other human being – Brexit, constant terror threats, a still-fragile economy, innumerable social problems, losing even a slim parliamentary majority therefore a risk of losing power, danger of mass artificial protests led by malicious demagogues – Mrs May somehow remains calm and carries on. If she somehow bounces back, and succeeds by delivering at least a smooth Brexit and thereby setting Britain towards an open path, then her name will be for the ages. If she fails, her name will at least be worthy of a footnote in the annals of resilience. For what we witness before our eyes, a day after a long day, is nothing less than a lesson in human resilience.
If Mrs May is forced out of office due to the myopia of her backbenchers, her epithet would be of three words only: the Last Englishwoman. Her fall would hasten death of a certain kind of Britain: a nation which used to understand certain unspoken values of stoicism
of decency, of diligence. These values would perish from politics, forever asphyxiated, perhaps underserved.