It might be thought odd to express sympathy for Theresa May. The country has been landed in the soup. Tories are furious and Corbynite Stalinists are preparing for a second election in which they expect to take power.
Much of what went wrong is directly the Prime Minister’s fault. The many people suggesting she call an early election (raises hand sheepishly) did not say she should call an early election and then…
a) run the worst election campaign since 1906, breaking the central rule by not having an experienced grown-up in charge throughout.
b) Launch a manifesto containing an assault on Tory and swing voters.
c) Have no message on the economy, beyond bashing business, meaning that the Tories never even tried to say that all this free stuff from Corbyn is fine, but the pressing question alongside Brexit is as follows. How do we make ourselves a wealthier country with a more dynamic economy which can pay for all the stuff people say they want?
d) Agree to a presidential campaign built on her personality when she is is not a natural in the limelight.
All of this, and more, she did or allowed to happen. And the results are, frankly, horrible, for the country, for the Tory party and for her personally.
There, May deserves deep sympathy. During the campaign there were rumours that she was deeply unhappy, downright miserable even. Her friends were worried and blamed her aides. It was difficult to confirm what was going on but her health – Diabetes Type One – was always a bigger issue than was publicly acknowledged. It is remarkable that she does what she does with that difficult condition to manage.
May is a thoroughly decent person and a patriot devoted to public service, but it is clear now what should have been clear all along. May is a naturally shy and very reserved person who is not comfortable in the limelight – unless she is given a very good script, when she can in front of the right audience deliver jokes well. But she cannot ad-lib and is uncomfortable with showboating.
The role played by Fiona Hill (her former co-chief of staff) was crucial in that respect going back more than decade. Hill is a bright operator who became way too brutal in her approach to dealing with any criticism. Yet, in opposition and then government she effectively rebuilt May, giving her more confidence and encouraging her while watching her back.
Hill is now gone, and May, a reserved and shy person, has just suffered epic public humiliation. The worst nightmare of an uneasy person is being played out live on television day after day. This led former Chancellor George Osborne to describe her on the Marr show as “a dead woman walking” on death row. It is a deeply unpleasant phrase and a downright awful thing to say. Osborne, also inherently shy, has worked hard to make himself good at public performance and he should not have let his glee at May’s decline show.
Yes, May should have allowed a serving Chancellor an elegant way out last year and would have done far better to have treated him with more respect. But two wrongs do not make a right. Osborne should apologise for that “dead woman walking” jibe.
What now? It is an open question whether May will find hidden reserves of resolve and, with the elders of the Tory tribe trying to prop her up, recover some poise and dignity. That is the hope of those saying she must stay, because her departure would require a messy leadership election.
Their message to MPs – some bewildered, others absolutely furious, it seems – is that The Only Way is May, for now. Tomorrow, she will be in front of the 1922 Committee, the Tory backbench powerhouse that will now become critical in the era of minority government. Then parliament reconvenes and May has to bounce back and biff Corbyn in the hothouse House of Commons.
Can she get some sleep? The Prime Minister looks exhausted, and is, say supporters. Can she become 25% less robotic in her answers and more human? Can she restore some confidence and show her MPs and the country that after the disaster of last week she is not completely crushed? Can she cope?
I don’t know. None of us do, yet.
It is cruel and difficult to watch this unfold, but when you volunteer for the highest office – as Eden found out and then Macmillan and later Thatcher – your job is so central to the national story that your personality strengths and weaknesses becomes public property, until you resign.
This, beyond any row over policy or the DUP, is what will decide when Theresa May goes, quickly or after a decent period. Whether she feels up to what lies ahead and can continue. Only she and her devoted husband know the answer.