Sinking to the occasion

The list of ideal qualities for a Prime Minister would run to several pages, and no one has yet embodied them all. However, surely the most essential attribute (apart from luck, which is not an attribute at all) is the ability to rise to the occasion. Whatever else one may think of his leadership, David Cameron unfailingly rose to the occasion. Whether it was words or actions that were required, he was ready with them every time it mattered.  

Sadly, one must now conclude that Theresa May does not possess this quality. When the occasion demands a rise, she sinks.

A few weeks ago, I wrote enthusiastically about the prospects for a May premiership. I believed, and still do, that her brand of Conservatism had the capacity to shift the party’s obsession with free market ideology over the past 40 years into a more balanced, more nuanced view of life as it is experienced by millions of people. But, if that is to happen, it seems clear now that someone else will have to be the standard bearer, because it will not be her.

It is hard to understand the psychology of people one knows well. To understand the psychology of a stranger is harder still. I watched Matthew Parris’s recent attempt on ‘Newsnight’ to pierce the enigma that is Theresa May and, by the end, I was as baffled as he was. But I do think that she is one of those people who is able (or was able) to exude confidence and inspire it in others, without possessing very much of it herself.

Reading about the Conservative fall-out from the election, with all factions trying to get their excuses in first and to shift the blame elsewhere, the thing that has most struck me is that the Prime Minister appears to have been a bystander in events that she should have been controlling. It is said that she never wanted to run such a personalised campaign. So why did she allow that to happen? It is said that she never liked the slogan ‘strong and stable’. So why did she repeat it endlessly?

There always needs to be a balance between being your own person and taking the advice of those around you, and it is seldom an easy balance to strike. Theresa May gives the impression (contrary to her reputation) of being rather too willing to listen to other people, if she trusts them, which she seldom does. She gives the impression now of someone who doesn’t know what she’s doing, but hopes that others do.

It was not necessarily the wrong initial decision for her to decline to appear in the charade of a leaders’ debate on television. Even more so when Jeremy Corbyn made the same decision. However, when Corbyn – street-fighting man that he is – ambushed her with a last minute change of mind, May should have changed her mind too, even though it would have been reactive. There needed to be an instant decision. There was an occasion to rise. That opportunity was not taken, and nor were many others.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, when it was clear that there would be no immediate change of Prime Minister, commentators were unanimous in declaring that May would need to change her style. She would have to become more inclusive, more open to divergent opinions, less buttoned-up. The question was whether she could manage to do it.

Fate is cruel, and it doesn’t always give you time. Within one week of a shattering election result, the Prime Minister has had several opportunities to show that some of the lessons have been learned. She has failed to take any of them.

She stood outside Downing Street on the day after the election and made a speech that showed nil awareness of the failure of her campaign and of the consequences for others. Members of her own party, apparently, ordered her to make a belated apology.

The question of a deal with the DUP is more complicated. The reasoning behind it is obvious, but to most people in Great Britain the DUP has a toxic image and some of that toxicity has now rubbed off on the Conservative Party. If a formal deal with the DUP did not need to be struck, it should not have been attempted. I share the view that, without a deal, the DUP would have been unlikely either to usher Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street or to force another election. The decision to seek a deal was a panic reaction. A confident Prime Minister would have brazened it out and ruled as head of a minority government.

Then there is Theresa May’s reaction to the Grenfell Tower disaster. I have some sympathy for her predicament. I think she is a decent but private person, not given to ostentatious emoting in public. I have a respect for that, and therefore my first response to the vitriol she attracted for her failure to talk to victims at the scene was to be upset that she should be attacked in this way. I still do feel that. But she was wrong not to engage with the emotion of the occasion. Again, I think that it was a deep-rooted insecurity, a lack of confidence, that made her unable to take that step. Not a lack of sympathy.

Theresa May’s response has been compared unfavourably with that of the Queen, which is justified. However, it is also ironic. The backlash the Prime Minister is facing now is identical to the one the Queen received after the death of Princess Diana, and for the same reasons. The Queen has learned her lesson well.

A failure to engage with the traumatised survivors of the fire has not been the Prime Minister’s only failing over Grenfell Tower. On behalf of the Government, she should immediately have taken charge of the situation. Announced a rapid response team. Ensured that resources were poured immediately into the area. Not left everything to a hapless Council.

It may sound cynical to say so, but both the election fiasco and the Grenfell Tower tragedy presented her with opportunities to show she had learned lessons. I fear that it did not cross her mind that they were opportunities. And, while that may be principled, it was unhelpful to an already precarious situation.

Perhaps I am asking too much. It is doubtful whether any of us can change a great deal, let alone within a week. But I am not asking for her to change. I am asking for her to behave consciously in a way that does not come naturally to her, because circumstances demand it. I am asking for her to be adaptable.

That can be done, because Jeremy Corbyn has just done it. He entered the fray of the election as a grumpy, shambolic Spartist and left it as an apparently genial, relaxed, humorous, well-presented human being. God knows how that transformation was effected, but it was.

Circumstances have demanded that Theresa May should undergo a parallel transformation. But she hasn’t, and I don’t believe that she can. I think the election result has robbed her of what little self-confidence she had. What remains is the husk of a Prime Minister, unable to preside credibly over the Brexit negotiations. She must go, quickly, and the Conservatives must choose another leader.