How can Theresa May survive Brexit?

The Prime Minister now looks dreadfully weak, but like all her predecessors she is a scapegoat, at the mercy of party and people

Andrew Gimson

Tested: Theresa May at last month’s Brussels summit (©Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)

The forthcoming state visit by President Ivanka Trump, which will start on Horse Guards Parade and end with the unveiling of the colossal gold obelisk erected at Turnberry in memory of her late father, is as good a time as any to contemplate the mysteries of leadership in a democracy. Her critics say with some bitterness that she got where she is today by being Donald Trump’s daughter. But then her host, King Charles III, got where he is today by being the son of Queen Elizabeth II. And the King’s unexpected popularity — unexpected at least by those who did not realise how thoroughly he would accept the necessary and proper limits of a constitutional monarch’s role — indicates a great advantage of the British system over the American.

The main function of the prime minister — one even the present incumbent, Jeremy Corbyn, cannot help performing with success — is to take the blame. His predecessor, Theresa May, took the blame for making a mess of the Brexit negotiations. Corbyn is now taking the blame for the collapse of the British economy. No British monarch since James II in 1688 has been made to answer for a political blunder (though in 1936 Edward VIII was forced to abdicate after marrying an unsuitable woman). Lord North, not George III, took the blame for losing the American colonies, and has gone down in history as an appallingly bad prime minister, even though he was in reality a highly capable and amiable figure, who spent a dozen years in power, from 1770-82, after five prime ministers had passed in rapid succession in the previous decade.

Neville Chamberlain, not George VI, took the blame for failing to deal with Hitler. In both cases, the monarch warmly approved of what the prime minister was doing, but remained in office. Appeasement, the policy pursued by the able, energetic and conscientious Chamberlain, was popular with the public too, for it appeared to offer the best hope of avoiding another terrible war. He was welcomed by cheering crowds when he got home from Munich after selling out the Czechs. In a democracy, the prime minister does what the people want, and takes the blame on their behalf when it goes wrong. Bertolt Brecht suggested, after the failed uprising on June 17, 1953 in East Berlin, that since the people had, in the words of some lackey of the regime, “forfeited the confidence of the government”, the government “should dissolve the people, and elect another”. But since it is even more inconvenient to dissolve a people than to depose a monarch, we have allowed the office of prime minister to come into existence, in order to have an individual scapegoat on hand whenever we require one.

These questions are on my mind because I have just written brief lives of all 54 British prime ministers since Sir Robert Walpole (Gimson’s Prime Ministers, Square Peg, £10.99), in power from 1721-42 and conventionally regarded as the first PM, for he set a pattern of constitutional practice which has endured to this day. Whatever other qualities a PM may require, he or she must be able to command a majority in the House of Commons: a beautifully simple yet difficult criterion to fulfil. This means, incidentally, that very few of our PMs have been complete duds, for the Commons can tell if someone is hopelessly stupid the moment he or she begins to speak. It also makes it difficult for someone who is flagrantly disreputable to make it to the top, for MPs will perceive this to be the case, and will find it too embarrassing to vote for such a person. Once David Lloyd George started in a more and more shameless way to sell honours, the withdrawal in 1922 of Conservative support from his post-war coalition was pretty much certain. Stanley Baldwin, at this point an obscure but emerging Tory MP, said Lloyd George had a “morally disintegrating effect” on all who dealt with him.

Political historians and theorists have an insatiable urge to define the prime ministership in terms of its powers — a project which is liable to end in frustration, for the powers are fluid and ill-defined. “The office of the prime minister is what its holder chooses and is able to make of it,” H.H. Asquith, holder of the office from 1908-16, observed in his memoirs. By far the greatest prime ministerial power is the power of patronage, which some, including Walpole, have been brilliant at distributing in order to entrench their control of the Commons.

Most backbenchers yearn for the more than a hundred ministerial posts, and the many other baubles, which are today in the prime minister’s gift. It is easy to feel contempt for their ambition, but without it, the House of Commons would be unmanageable, and Italian levels of instability might prevail. After failing to win the 2010 election outright, David Cameron fortified his position not just by doing a deal with Nick Clegg, but by holding out hope to his own backbenchers, young and old, male and female, Left and Right, bright and dim, that their time would come. This was a difficult hope to maintain, for everyone could see there were nothing like as many jobs to go around as there were backbenchers who longed for their talents to be recognised, especially once the Liberal Democrats had been rewarded for their support with a generous share of the cake. In the creation of privy councillors and life peers Cameron was profligate on an 18th-century scale, which eased the pressure a bit, though it also had the effect of devaluing that currency.

These reflections obscure a more fundamental point. The essence of the position of British prime minister is that at least in theory, and quite often in practice, he or she can be dismissed at a moment’s notice. In the midst of Downing Street, the prime minister is in death. It is very difficult to stay at the top for long. The average length of time that a PM has spent in office, not always in a single stint, is five and a half years. Nor has the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, passed in 2011 so the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats could carry on their coalition for a full five years without each party fearing the other might spring a general election on it, abolished this sudden-death tradition. Cameron felt obliged to declare at breakfast-time on the morning after the EU referendum that he would not be carrying on. He had encompassed his own downfall by a different but no less deadly method from the traditional overthrow either by voters in a general election (in recent decades, James Callaghan, John Major and Gordon Brown have gone in that way), or by rebels within the PM’s own party who reckon the leader has become an electoral liability (Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair).

This is part of our understanding of liberty. We are a free country because we can at any moment get rid of whoever is in charge. Throughout her 11 years and 209 days in power, Margaret Thatcher could have been chucked overboard, and she knew it. At the start of the 1980s, when unemployment rose to three million and great swathes of British industry collapsed, the general view was that unless, like Edward Heath, she did a U-turn, she was finished. The Falklands War, the miners’ strike, the Brighton bomb and the Westland affair could all have precipitated her downfall long before the poll tax and disagreements about Europe brought about her defeat by her own MPs. Many of her colleagues detested her, she managed to fall out even with ministers such as Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe who agreed with most of what she was doing, and the longer her leadership went on, the more unbearable it seemed to her rivals that she was allowing none of them a turn at being prime minister. In retrospect, it is surprising, not that she was thrown overboard at the end of 1990, but that she lasted so long.

We need a crisis, or a series of crises, in part because these can be turned into opportunities to turn out the prime minister, and sometimes the whole government. Commentators tend to deplore whatever difficulties we happen to be passing through, lamenting that these are the worst since the Second World War, or at least since Suez, and conveniently overlooking all the troubles which have occurred since then, which seemed bad enough at the time. They write on the unspoken assumption, welcome to whoever is in power at the time, that security is the highest political good. A degree of security is of course desirable, indeed necessary, but too much is dangerous to liberty. Parliamentary politics would perish, or atrophy, if we had nothing serious to argue about. The prime minister ought almost always to be in danger, at risk of being eclipsed by figures within his or her own party as well as by the leader of the opposition.

Conservative backwoodsmen ended up treating one of their most remarkable leaders, Robert Peel, as a renegade, despite the formative role he had played in the creation of their party. Labour MPs came to regard Ramsay MacDonald, who had done so much to create and lead their parliamentary party, as the worst traitor of all. The role of prime minister is essentially a sacrificial one.

Not that those who compete against each other for it are inclined to see it in this light. They believe they will be powerful, and they assure us they have the solutions we seek, however disappointing their predecessors may have proved. And it is true that most of them have a honeymoon period during which we allow ourselves to share in their optimism, for as voters we are torn between conflicting impulses. We long to believe we have found a saviour, but are determined to overthrow whoever fails to save us. We allow the stage to be dominated for a time by a successful prime minister, but then restore equality, for which all democracies have a deep desire, by dragging that individual back down to our own level, often with brutal abruptness.

In The Myth of the Strong Leader, Archie Brown points out that the greatest leaders, who in recent British history have included Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee, are collegiate figures, who assemble strong coalitions of gifted people, rather than pretending they can do it all by exercising their superhuman personal abilities. Too strong a leader, who pretends always to know best and ignores contrary advice, debilitates his or her own party, and often leads the country to disaster. As prime minister, Anthony Eden wanted to show how decisive he was. He was a gifted but thin-skinned man, excellent in subordinate positions, but deeply hurt by press criticism once he got to the top. Rather than allow his ministerial colleagues to get on with it, he harassed them morning, noon and night. And he wished to prove that far from being a ditherer, which in truth he was, he could take masterful action to deal with a dictator. Hence the Suez debacle.

Archie Brown is particularly severe on Tony Blair, observing that the great Labour victory of 1997, for which the new prime minister appropriated the lion’s share of the credit, would actually have happened whoever was in charge:

The landslide — an overall Labour majority of 179 — itself owed much to an electoral system which translates a fairly modest increase in popular votes into a disproportionately great advantage in seats. Labour’s share of the popular vote was lower in 1997 than in all elections between 1945 and 1966, including those which Labour lost. The Conservatives, however, fared catastrophically. They had their lowest share of the vote of the century, as well as their worst result since  1906 in terms of seats. They had become so unpopular that any Labour leader who did not “self-destruct” would have led the party to an overall majority of well over a hundred seats in the House of Commons. Bartle and Crewe calculate  that had Major and Blair “been evaluated equally favourably, Labour’s majority would have been cut from 11.9 to 11.0 points, altering the outcome in just four seats”.

Part of the trouble with posing as a strong leader is that one starts to believe that is what one actually is. So Blair told an official who urged caution on Iraq: “You are Neville Chamberlain, I am Winston Churchill and Saddam is Hitler.” What intolerable hubris, and Blair adds insult to injury by wishing us to take as high a view of him as he takes of himself. In his early years, he had a capacity for rueful, self-deprecating jokes, which showed he had some inkling of why people did not always agree with him. But towards the end of his decade in Downing Street, and for many years afterwards, he used his considerable powers of advocacy to try to force everyone to agree he had always been in the right, or at least that he had had invariably acted in good faith. His moral vanity became unbearable. When one considers this, the allergic reaction of the Labour Party to him becomes more comprehensible. Corbyn and his supporters are a rebellion against Blair rather than against Cameron or May.

Donald Trump is the American version of this allergic reaction to the hypocrisies of the pious, self-regarding, liberal ruling class. As I was writing this piece, the president said straight out that he wants to go on selling arms to the Saudis: “They are ordering military equipment. Everybody in the world wanted that order. Russia wanted it, China wanted it, we wanted it. We got it. I don’t want to hurt jobs. I don’t want to lose an order like that.”

 Any president would have kept this consideration in mind as he wondered how to respond to the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi. But most of them would have made a show of trying to put pressure on the Saudis by threatening to cut off arms sales, while in fact being as keen as ever to do business. At least with Trump the issue was not veiled in that pretence of virtue.

I have no idea, as suggested in jest at the start of this piece, whether Ivanka will succeed her father as president. The pious view is that the hereditary principle has no place in the modern world, for it is an offence against equality of opportunity. But in the world as it actually is, one may be fortunate enough to inherit various abilities from one’s parents and grandparents, and to learn from them the traditions of behaviour which assist in the practice of a particular trade or profession. Most of us try, in whatever way we can, to help our children to do well in life. We want to pass on whatever we can to them, and remember with gratitude the things which were passed on to us, which may have nothing much to do with material possessions, and everything to do with love, manners, education, culture and religion. Voters don’t generally mind in the slightest if a candidate’s father or mother reached a high level in politics. They may even be charmed by the carrying on of a famous name, and reckon the bearer of it will with any luck not wish to bring shame on the family. In 1955, Paul Bloomfield published a book, Uncommon People, which begins:

An Elizabethan country squire, a gentleman of some local prestige in the north of Leicestershire, married twice and had nine children. He died in 1606, three years after his great Queen. Much of the time since then descendants of his have managed — occasionally they have bungled — the affairs of England, and he, not Elizabeth I (who was unmarried and childless), was the ancestor of Elizabeth II. Sir Winston Churchill was the twelfth of our Prime Ministers — out of the 43 who have held office since Walpole — descended from him.

The squire was called Sir George Villiers, and the number of PMs descended from him is now reckoned to be 16 out of 54, with Cameron the most recent of these. I do not pretend that any simple moral should be drawn from this fact. But the existence of this and of the various other connections described by Bloomfield, including the great Quaker connection deriving from Robert Barclay, and the Wedgwood-Darwin connection, at least suggest it would be absurd to suggest someone could not be a scientist just because he or she is descended from scientists, or a prime minister just because he or she is descended, along with perhaps 50,000 other people, from Sir George Villiers.

In the United States, the sixth president, John Quincy Adams, was the son of John Adams, the second president, and in more recent times, the 43rd president was the son of the 41st: the two Bushes, who indicate that even today, voters have no insuperable aversion to such a link.

We want our prime minister to possess a paradoxical collection of qualities; to be at once ordinary and extraordinary, conventional and innovative, safe and audacious, banal and brilliant, a follower and a leader, sensitive to every change in the political weather but tough enough to endure terrible setbacks, on the side of the people but able to build a cabinet from members of the political class. Or as Walter Bagehot put it in 1856, when reviewing Peel’s Memoirs,

A constitutional statesman is in general a man of common opinions and uncommon abilities . . . the most influential of constitutional statesmen is the one who most felicitously expresses the creed of the moment, who administers it, who embodies it in laws and institutions, who gives it the highest life it is capable of, who induces the average man to think, “I could not have done it any better if I had had time myself.”

That is the test Theresa May is just now struggling to pass with Brexit. She looks dreadfully weak, but the average person probably takes a more favourable view of her than envious and superior pundits are inclined to do. All prime ministers need the fortitude to cope with being weak, and this at least she displays in ample measure. It is not impossible she will be looked back on with sympathy rather than with scorn.

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