Theresa May can stay for as long as she chooses
Like an Ishiguro character, the PM could string this out for longer than seems feasible
Theresa May is greeted by primary pupils during a visit to the Dunraven School in Streatham, south London, on Monday. Photograph: Geoff Pugh/Daily Telegraph/PA Wire
In the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature last week, characters cope with the bleakness of their situation through denial. They lose themselves in immediate tasks and speak in the stilted style of people putting on a brave face. The tension is so great you expect them to snap in half on the next page. Yet they get by.
Theresa May, who is almost the same age as Ishiguro, and grew up in a similar English home county, but who had a slightly worse week, could be the painter in An Artist of the Floating World or the butler in The Remains of the Day, right down to her austere talk of “duty” and “service”. And like them, the prime minister could string this out for longer than seems feasible.
After her stiff response to the Grenfell Tower fire in June, one more public humiliation was certain to finish her. It came last week, when her annual speech to the Conservative Party conference was marred by a prankster, a sore throat and a disintegrating stage, until you half-expected the Benny Hill Show theme tune to parp out of the speakers in lieu of her voice. Yet she is still here, if by a thread.
What has saved her is not, as I once thought, a lack of alternatives per se. Between Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary who has surface lustre if literally nothing else, Philip Hammond, the chancellor, Amber Rudd, the home secretary, and David Davis, the Brexit secretary, the Tories have about as good (or bad) a spread of talent as characterises the average leadership race in a medium-sized democracy where the most able people never consider a political career. And that is without raiding Edinburgh for Ruth Davidson, who leads the Scottish Conservatives.
No, what protects May is the suspicion among Tories that no leader can reconcile their differences on Europe. If the party is to be riven regardless, why bother with a change? Especially if it eats time in talks with the EU that are already one-quarter into their budgeted duration.
May’s real error
May apologised for the general election that she called and botched, but her real error was to file article 50 before her party had a broad agreement on the terms of exit.
Even that haste was itself forced by the splits: this nominal Remainer had to impress Leavers who feared for their project in her hands. There is no inherent disgrace to any party’s rift over Europe. It would be worse if MPs glossed over their arguments on the largest question they will ever answer. The prime minister’s crime was to start the process of exit before those arguments were settled, but it is a crime that perversely saves her now.
A Conservative leader must produce an exit plan that reconciles Remain MPs with Leave MPs, and both with a divided nation, and then survives contact with EU negotiators. Even Tories who see the raw materials of greatness in Johnson or (more plausibly) Davidson must know that once the sugar rush of their election as leader had passed, this test would remain as daunting and probably impossible as it was under May.
Unless there is a Churchill or Alexander the Great on their benches, the Tories cannot elect their way out of this fix. There is no human resources solution to an ideological problem. There is no Who answer to a What question.
Nor was the election to blame. Imagine that the Tories still had the parliamentary majority they inherited from David Cameron or an enhanced one after a successful election. Why would they be in any less trouble?
If this is right, and May’s colleagues are too resigned to their splits to demand a new leader, then the prime minister can last as long as her absorptive capacity for punishment holds up. Her resilience seems improbable until you recall that Gordon Brown sustained a rolling crisis of a premiership for three years, and John Major for twice as long.
Political survival hinges on parliamentary numbers, yes, but on the human element too. For decades Ishiguro’s work has shown us how people improvise ways of getting through life, even if these involve self-deception. They might misremember the mistakes that caused their predicament as historic inevitabilities. They might immerse themselves in routine and work. They might reconceptualise their own hurt as service to a larger cause.
May seems to lean on all these methods. It is hard to watch but it has kept her in post after an election that took her authority, and a conference that took her dignity. Looking back, Cameron’s immediate resignation after the referendum is aberrant in the recent political record, which is full of untenable situations that went on and on.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017