What sort of Prime Minister has Theresa May been? Of course good and bad are very subjective. Roughly, we all think we know what a bad prime minister looks like, such as Neville Chamberlain doing deals with Hitler. We also know, again roughly, what a good one looks like, probably Winston Churchill defying Hitler (though I’d dampen your Churchill enthusiasm if holidaying in Ireland or India).
Beyond this, there isn’t really a checklist. Perhaps hanging in there is one pretty crude measure of how a PM has done. May’s been in charge two years, one month. She’s out done Alec Douglas-Home (“who?” you all shout) and Anthony Eden (he of Suez who did a year and eight months). This isn’t yet spectacular. Tony Blair did 10 years and Thatcher did 11 years and a bit. William Pitt the Younger still leads the field with a whopping 17 years and one month (reportedly while drinking a bottle of port a day). The self-styled Vicar’s Daughter has, however, amid the weekly plots and rumours, obeyed what Orwell called ’the great modern commandment - the eleventh commandment which has wiped out all the others: ‘Thou shalt not lose thy job’.
Winning elections is another rough measure. Being a winner is pretty important. May’s record is also a bit patchy here. She did technically win the snap election in June 2017 but managed to blow her majority. Corbyn lost but actually won by doing better than everyone expected. That’s politics, that is.
There are other yardsticks. In terms of keeping your party and government together, she leads (not through her own fault) the most divided Tory government of the past 70 years. Losing a foreign secretary is pretty bad form, though not unknown. Losing a foreign secretary and Brexit secretary after a single ‘away day’ raises deep questions about party unity (and the quality of the away days).
Beyond this, May’s premiership has the appearance of being one long withdrawal from positions, policies and, one could say, principles. She is a kind of waste paper basket prime minister, with plans thrown out as she retreats. Remember her industrial strategy, which has now been launched twice? Bringing back grammar schools and fox hunting? The day-long policy to name and shame foreign workers in UK companies? The list goes on. May also promised on the steps of Downing Street to right ‘burning injustices’ but she seemed to be referring to her own deporting of UK citizens.
The concrete things she has done have not gone so well. Snap election aside, triggering article 50 not only cost 985.50 but also her leverage. From there on, Brexit has been the biggest retreat of all: as one very perceptive ex-Home Secretary said long ago in April 2016 ‘in a stand-off between Britain and the EU, 44% of our exports is more important to us than 8% of the EU’s exports is to them’.
May’s fatal phrase (in full) was “Brexit means Brexit and we are going to make a success of it”. In terms of Brexit meaning Brexit, in October 2016 it seemed clear that Brexit meant no single market, no customs union and no more espressos. The new plan shows how far backwards we’ve gone: it now involves a ‘common rulebook for goods’, some ‘ongoing harmonisation’, a bit of ‘co-operative arrangements between regulators’ with a ‘joint institutional framework’ and just a dash of ‘due regard to EU case law’. The UK-EU would work ‘as if a combined customs territory’. So that’s clear. According to Sky News, it could also involve joining the ‘11-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership’, described by Wikipedia as ‘defunct’ ‘not ratified’ and ‘did not take effect’.
Meanwhile, exactly what a ‘successful’ Brexit looks like has gone through one of the greatest redefinitions in history from, as many have pointed out, the ‘easiest deal in human history’ to stockpiling blood plasma and Spam. We should have paid more attention exactly what those Brexit supporters meant when they promised a new ’Elizabethan age’, those glorious times when life expectancy was 40, no one had a bath and lots of people died of something called the ‘sweating sickness’.
UK prime ministers were famously described as being either a bookie or Vicar. Theresa May ‘talks like a vicar and behaves like a bookie’ and her premiership has been a series of gambles that failed. What has saved her so far is that no one knows quite what Brexit she wants, and Corbyn and Labour’s (apparent) polling stalemate. Alex Massie put May’s survival down to being like the famous Russian general Mikhail Kutuzov who won by retreating and playing for time. But you can’t win, as Churchill said, by evacuations. Now, as the clock ticks and Corbyn (perhaps) rises in the polls, what happens when May runs out of space and time?