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Angela Tilby: May’s critics have learned nothing

31 May 2019


A tearful Mrs May speaks to the media outside 10 Downing Street, last week, after announcing that she will quit as leader of the Conservative party on 7 June

A tearful Mrs May speaks to the media outside 10 Downing Street, last week, after announcing that she will quit as leader of the Conservative party on...

IN JULY 2017, I made a note in my diary about what I perceived to be a mounting campaign in the press to “dismember” Theresa May, after the failed gamble of the spring General Election. I felt that vultures from Right and Left were gathering round, willing her to fail. Later that year, George Osborne, the Chancellor whom Mrs May had sacked, was reported as saying that he wanted her “chopped up in bags in my freezer”.

The lasting image from her resignation speech last Friday was the moment that she cried on her final syllables. With her departure, the “arrogant posh boys” (Nadine Dorries’s term) had their ritual sacrifice at last. After all, she was never one of them: she never attempted to woo them, or flirt with them (as the blessed Margaret did). Ever since she outed Tories as “the nasty party”, Mrs May has provoked a disturbing level of violent and misogynistic language. Even moderate commentators such as Matthew Parris regularly savaged her as an “unperson”, the “death star” of politics.

As ambitious Tories queue up in the hope of replacing her, it might be worth considering where the responsibility for her failure to deliver an orderly Brexit truly lies. After all, she successfully negotiated a realistic deal with all 27 member states; it was only the 28th which turned it down.

Mrs May’s deal was a compromise, an attempt to deliver on the referendum without entirely alienating moderate Remainers. Parliament rejected it three times. Tribal self-interest ensured that Nicola Sturgeon and Arlene Foster said no; cynical politicking determined the Corbyn response; self-righteous Remainers simply banged on about their second referendum; and the hard-line Brexiteers, frightened by the resurrection of Nigel Farage, became more and more implacable.

Yet it seems to occur to almost no one that Mrs May’s failure to deliver Brexit was anything other than her personal fault. Those who want to replace her have learnt nothing from her travails, seeming to think that all will be easy-peasy.

The verdict that Mrs May was hopeless reassures almost everyone, but it is not the only view of her. In a letter to The Times, Bishop James Jones, who chaired the Hillsborough inquiry, described her as “determined, careful, compassionate, emotionally intelligent, and receptive to advice”. I met her once, when I preached at her parish church, and my impression was much closer to the Bishop’s than to those who have hounded her from office.

It is convenient to conclude that she was never quite up to the job, because it takes the responsibility away from our elected representatives, who still believe that they can beat the other side down rather than settle for a messy compromise. Mrs May’s deal, although it “pleased” no one, could still turn out to have been the only solution. But now someone else (probably a man) will claim the credit.

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