No one can envy Theresa May the job of managing the Conservative Party at the moment. It is a thankless task and may ultimately be impossible. But her strength is in management. She is a highly competent manager who will work efficiently and quietly but forcefully to achieve whatever goal is set for her.
The Home Office, a well known graveyard for many a political career, which some argue is unmanageable and not fit for purpose was overseen by Mrs May for just short of 6 years. You have to go back to 1957 and RA Butler to find another politician who lasted more than a couple of years.
In her time at the Home Office she could not have been accused of being a reforming Minister. Instead she ploughed a popular Tory agenda of cracking down on drugs and immigration. She managed very effectively to avoid PR disasters or faced them down such as the Abu Hamza saga which she deftly used as a stick to beat the European convention on human rights, again a popular move for the party faithful.
When David Cameron resigned after his disastrous attempt to heal the divisions over Europe with a referendum Mrs May emerged as the “safe pair of hands” compromise. The Goldilocks candidate who was not very much in favour of leaving Europe and not very much in favour of staying inside.
Her initial foray into leadership as opposed to management was not particularly successful. Her commitment to the “just about managing” and addressing an increasingly unequal society with proposals about workers on company boards soon ran into opposition. The latter was just dropped and the members of the former group could be forgiven for wondering what her commitment meant in practice as the employed become the largest cohort of poor people.
If these early attempts at leadership collapsed or dribbled into the sand, the next, an election, ran into a brick wall. Having lead the country into believing now was not the time for an election she was persuaded an opportunistic grab for more seats was in fact precisely in the interests of the country. During the election she equated leadership with an oft repeated mantra of “strong and stable government” and seemed to hope this would overcome the deficiencies of an ill thought through rag bag of a manifesto.
With a reduced majority and reliant on the votes of the DUP Mrs May was back in her comfort zone of managing competing interests. Clearly this is a real strength however success is not always possible. Over Europe, she took her vision from the electorate and transformed the yes/no result of the referendum into the more sophisticated statement of policy that “Brexit means Brexit”.
Unfortunately, her party has within it diametrically opposed views of what this means. On one side there are those who think leaving Europe will be an enormous mistake on the other those who believe departure will open up a new vista of opportunity to put the Great back into Britain. Phillip Hammond and Jacob Rees Mogg respectively.
If this were not bad enough, between the rock and the hard place circle the Gove/Johnson vultures in a principle free zone, occasionally swooping down to pick the flesh off the bones of any attempt to establish a coherent policy on Brexit. Guided by the moral compass of dedicated careerists they snipe and carp openly hoping to benefit from the political chaos which is inevitable whether we leave of remain.
As the awful car crash that is Britain’s exit from Europe becomes clearer the pressure for another referendum grows day by day. It is to Mrs May’s credit that she stands firm against this. Most Prime Ministers, with an eye to their place in history would be wanting to do a Pontius Pilate on this one. Who wants their name remembered in the history books as the Prime Minister that oversaw the decisive shift to accelerate the decline of the UK needlessly.
It is possible this has not yet occurred to Mrs May. She is focused 100% on making this work like the excellent manager she is. What she lacks is the vision and resolution a leader needs to identify that the goal set is now clearly wrong, even if it was right at some point in June 2016.
It is impossible to rule out the possibility that no deal would be better than a bad deal. But it is increasingly clear David Davis and his team would have to have got us to the point of one spectacularly bad deal to make it worse than no deal.
The truth is “no deal” is not an option. The border between the North and South of Ireland alone prevents this. In most circumstances politicians can fall back on two staple ways of avoiding difficult choices. First, kicking the can down the road. Unfortunately this is precluded by the legislative timetable attached to withdrawal. Second, good old fudge. Sadly the choices are so stark and so highly politically contentious this is not on the menu either.
My money is on another referendum. As the awfulness of the alternatives becomes increasingly apparent no one will want to be left as the person responsible. Mrs May’s efforts are noble but as likely to be effective as those of King Canute.