Sunday, 3 March 2019

A long view of May's long game

So, an English government falls unexpectedly as its plans for reconciliation with Europe collapse. Power passes by default to the last woman standing, who finds herself leading an uneasy regime in which her supposed allies – the radicals who are most firmly committed to a clean break with the Continent – don’t fully trust that she is on their side. It soon becomes clear that she has a very distinctive political style: to delay; to postpone difficult decisions for as long as possible; to suppress any discussion of the topics which she does personally not wish to address. For a great many of her subjects, especially for those who are instinctively her allies, this is first frustrating, then infuriating, then intolerable. The country is facing potential catastrophes, as it seems to them, and she will not acknowledge the fact or face up to the scale of the emergency. Does she not know that events are sliding towards catastrophe while she does nothing? Or does she not care? Some of those allies lose their cool, speak their minds, and are frozen out of power as a result. Others keep their heads down and keep quietly plugging away. Slowly, slowly, over time, as the evidence of real and potentially mortal danger becomes unmistakable, they manage to drag slivers of concession out of her one by one. At last, a crisis comes along that she is unable to dodge, she is forced to make a choice, and in the end she does what all the sensible people around her have been urging her to do for as long as anyone can remember. Her reward for this is permanently to be cast as a villain in the romantic narratives which lament the impossible, lost dream she killed.

Yes, I admit it is a tasteless comparison. Elizabeth I was being pressed to cut off her cousin’s head; Theresa May is merely being pressed to rule out a no-deal Brexit. But the sense of existential crisis is not entirely different.

I am no fan of Mrs May’s style of government, nor, it should be said, of Elizabeth’s. But especially since Mrs May has made the comparison herself, I wonder if it might be instructive, even as some of her party have become increasingly apocalyptic about what they see as the vacuum of her leadership. Delay, postponement and inaction are intensely annoying as political techniques, but they can work, and not just because occasionally, if you wait long enough, something turns up. Importantly, a delayer  is risk-averse - sometimes pathologically so, it is true - and this makes her susceptible to pressure. She will be much more likely in the end to take the less dramatic option in order to keep the boat afloat than to go down valiantly with her ship.

And if in retrospect everything works out more or less all right – if the worst disasters are avoided, albeit the glorious hopes remain unfulfilled too – then she may win some grudging respect and even some nostalgic affection. Especially if, as seems entirely likely, she has a successor who infuriates us all so much that we decide we want to blow up Parliament entirely.

1 comment:

  1. So perhaps one of the key questions is: which is Mrs. May's ship? Brexit? The country? Or (I suspect...) the Tory party? Which is the boat she will choose to keep afloat and which (to get my metaphors all muddled) the iceberg or the rock?

    (Hazel Rothera)