I did feel a pang of sympathy for Theresa May as her voice broke at the end of her short speech outside Number 10 on Friday.
Many have commented that she saved her tears for herself, rather than Grenfell or various other poor souls affected by tragedy or misfortune. I don’t buy that. Firstly we have no idea what her personal, private reaction to those events was. Secondly if she’d been seen weeping in public frequently, they would have criticised her for that too.
She is that kind of politician. Where the Queen is often said to have never put a foot wrong, Theresa May doesn’t seem to have ever put a foot right. Whatever the opposite of the Midas touch is, she has it.
She would have been hopelessly out of her depth as Prime Minster in the best of times. To be landed with the top job in this ferocious Brexit atmosphere was like asking a Sunday soccer official to referee the World Cup final.
She made some dreadful mistakes. The general election of 2017 was the biggest. She squandered her inherited majority and set herself on the back foot for the rest of her time in office. She was secretive, negotiating over the heads of her delegated ministers and officials. She had no alternative gear, no common touch. Her sense of duty and standards would have been virtues in another age, but her attempts to plug every hole, bridge every gap and bring everyone into line were always doomed to fail.
Theresa May is not a bad person. She just wasn’t a very good prime minister. Just how well the next person shines will show how much was down to her and how much down to the job at this febrile time.
It’s also inescapable how the focus was often made on the fact that she was a woman. Great strides have been made in our society in my lifetime. And the atmosphere is certainly different since our first female prime minister was elected, 40 years ago this month.
But anyone believing that the battles over prejudice towards women, non-white or those from less privileged backgrounds are over, is delusional. Look at the front page photo and headlines comparing Theresa May’s legs with Nicola Sturgeon’s on their first official meeting. This – in 2016!
That patriarchal structure remains. The opportunities available to those of the white, middle class and upwards, male talent pool remain the most glistening cherries in the bowl. Rather like the fashionable posters proclaiming dedication to mental health and the environment, so many organisations provide window dressing with no actual content inside.
‘Positive discrimination’ ‘all women lists’ ‘selection quotas’ are still the grown-up equivalent of free school meals vouchers. Visible measures of tokenism that burn inside the ‘lucky candidates’ who get the unwanted attention of official leg-ups. Please – don’t provide ladders. Just genuinely flatten that playing field!
Anyway – back to Theresa May. She must have had the best night’s sleep for a very long time last night. And she will get to have a swansong, welcoming President Trump on his state visit (saving her successor that awkward gig) as well as the D-Day commemorations. If you begrudge her those last few moments in the final spotlight, then you show how much you truly understand the meanness of spirit she has been accused of.
She will go down as a footnote prime minister. Her odd attempt to affiliate herself with the Cameron-Osborne years which she’d previously wanted to distance herself from was an unworthy move by someone trying to carve out a better legacy.
But her tears showed how much it had meant to her. She tried and failed. And she knew that she had failed. The vicar’s daughter torn betwixt her ambition and her rectitude fell between the two stools, achieving neither. She could have pre-recorded the message and released it. But she stepped out and in a rare moment of openness let the world see there was a beating heart in the ‘Maybot’. Too little and alas, much too late.
There will be time enough to speculate about the next PM and the coming weeks promise much for the Westminster watchers. The European election results due out tonight will provide a steer for the direction of our politics generally, along with our friends on the continent.
And I’ll no doubt have one or two things to say along the way…
[PS – my personal experience of Theresa May was actually a bright memory. She kindly sent my Dad a 90th birthday greeting last year. Of course she didn’t sit and type it herself, but it was personalised to him and hand signed. Thanks for that TM]