‘May’s Fatal Flaw’, UnHerd, 24 May, 2019.

After the initial surge of sympathy provoked in my sentimental old soul by Theresa May’s tears at the end of her speech in Downing Street, all I could think of were Oscar Wilde’s words on Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop: “One must have a heart of stone,” Wilde wrote, “to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”

It was a speech of epic self-delusion and self-justification, followed by a veritable flood of hypocrisy from many of those who had made her life – indeed, all our lives – a misery for the last two years. Ultimately, though, they aren’t to blame for the mess the country and the Conservative Party is in today. She is. Where, then, did it all go so terribly wrong?

It was as soon as she stepped through the door of Number Ten Downing Street. Instead of turning round and telling people, particularly in her own party, the truth – namely that the referendum was a close run thing, that people had voted Leave for a myriad of different reasons, that the Irish border was bound to prove problematic, and that, more generally, the EU-27 weren’t going to allow the UK to have its cake and eat it – she decided to present herself as Brexitier-than-thou.

Quite why we can only guess. There are a number of possibilities, even leaving aside the temptation to cast her erstwhile adviser, Nick Timothy as the serpent.

Perhaps it was pure partisan opportunism – the thought of the Tories pulling off Brexit and pulling in many of the four million voters who had supported UKIP in 2015. Perhaps it was the need to prove her personal bona fides after playing the role of reluctant Remainer in the referendum campaign. Perhaps it was her tendency, after five years as Home Secretary, to see everything through the prism of immigration: Vote Leave stressed it; therefore the referendum was won on it; therefore free movement must end; therefore hard Brexit.

From that initial decision everything else flowed.

Originally published at https://unherd.com/2019/05/what-was-mays-fatal-flaw/


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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