When she was resigning outside 10 Downing Street on Friday, Theresa May choked up as she spoke of her “enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love.” As she recited these words, she seemed to be suddenly crushed by the realisation that there was no reciprocity. The country she loves absolutely despises her.
My own theory is that much of May’s premiership has closely mirrored her experience as a Type 1 diabetic. I should say that I suffer from the same condition. There is an immense distance between the diabetic’s private mind, which has to remain always vigilant, calculating and paranoid, and the rest of their behaviour, which they are constantly checking for evidence of overly low or high blood sugars (hypo or hyperglycaemia). The diabetic has to be permanently conscious of themselves in a way that sets them apart from non-diabetics almost as a different psychological species. They can never take a break from their unending, paranoid self-scrutiny.
This monitoring often involves the diabetic having to impersonate a well person. In whatever situation they are in they have to just keep going, not doing or saying anything that will alarm those around them, until they can administer the next insulin injection or discreetly wolf down the next plate of carbs. As the sufferer edges nearer to the chaotic dizziness of hypoglycaemia (a “no-deal” Brexit) or the stultifying droopiness of hyperglycaemia (staying in the EU), they get by, minute by minute, through simply pretending that everything is normal. May’s government had in all practical respects collapsed last November, when it had lost its majority in the House of Commons on every significant economic question. But it continued to impersonate a functioning government, woodenly acting out its charade of cabinet unity and legislative purposefulness.
I am tempted to explain how populism represents the insulin in this analogy, but it might be wiser to move on. I nonetheless genuinely hold that a lot of May’s secrecy and paranoia is, in the context of her diabetes, a skillset and one that is necessary to managing her condition competently.
She is otherwise not very unique and indeed her premiership has followed a largely familiar pattern. She, Gordon Brown, and David Cameron were all controlling managers and not especially imaginative or empathetic technocrats, who were all confounded in the end by the liveliness of our democracy. All three look likely to share the same fate: being marooned in unbearably still suburban mansions, where they will work away at producing memoirs that they know that nobody is ever going to seriously sit down around a cosy fireside to read (“Chapter Three: My Boisterous Teenaged Years in the Fields of Wheat”). May has apparently resolved to continue as a constituency MP, but the other two had issued the same promise and both had soon tired of it.
Another characteristic of May’s premiership is that she was always to some extent a hostage. However lonely she might have looked, whatever she was doing at any given point had an unbroken connection to the interests of the parliamentary Conservative Party. In the early days, when she was briefly popular with the public, she could call an election and issue a calamitous manifesto without a word of challenge from her cabinet colleagues. They all thought that her unconstrained leadership was their ticket to a parliamentary majority. Once the election was duly lost, or almost lost, they were suddenly of the opinion that they should have been consulted after all. May’s dictatorial streak was no longer their route to power and indeed blaming it was now their chief strategy for avoiding responsibility. They hadn’t been there when the manifesto was being written and they should have been.
Scapegoats are meant to be cast out into the wilderness but May would come to share this function with that of leading from the centre. Both the Remainers and Brexiteers in her cabinet had convinced themselves that they still had some slender advantage under her premiership that might be lost during a leadership contest. May stood so supreme, even through ever more extraordinary and unprecedent rounds of humiliation for a British prime minister, because she had become a bulwark against everything. She naturally continued to egg on both sides. Month after month of timewasting followed. The inevitable leadership contest – one that might have escalated into a wider national debate or a general election in which one side would climactically lose – was endlessly postponed. How, indeed, could one have a leadership election when everybody involved was too cowardly to show any leadership and boldly renew the case for either Brexit or Remain?
There was a ludicrous party conference speech in which May almost died of combined exhaustion and embarrassment. Still, the party would not depose her. On she went, rather like the dead and decomposing captain who is lashed to the helm of the Demeter in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Senior Brexiteers resigned in response to May’s Chequers agreement, which procured only limited freedoms from the EU, but the parliamentary party was too aghast to follow them. A month later and two thirds of Tory MPs backed May during a botched leadership coup. They conceded that she was totally politically wretched whilst simultaneously admitting that she was their most indispensable asset. And what made her so indispensable was her unreadability, her featurelessness, her slipperiness, her noncommittal warmth for an even selection of elements of Brexit and the EU. Her knack for stimulating political pareidolia.
The emergence of the Brexit Party, and the consequent slump of the Conservative vote in opinion polls, has for the time being afforded a decisive advantage to the Brexiteers. With the deadlock finally broken, May is gone. Under the exhilaration of her departure, the parliamentary Tories have flung themselves into an almost hysterical, and to outsiders completely bewildering, leadership contest.
The happiest thing that could happen to the winner is that they could lose a general election. Failing this, they will have to commit to either a “no-deal” Brexit or to a second referendum, and either of these options will render them the most reviled of modern politicians. In this situation, one would expect solemnity from the leadership applicants, the appearance of unflinching, grim-faced people who know they have a difficult job awaiting them. Yet so far the contest has been mindlessly innocent and plastic.
The most delusional aspect of this contest is the veneration for the front-runner. As May had once been, the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson is now generally viewed as the Tories’ automatic ticket to a parliamentary majority. But his weirdly energyless creeping to 10 Downing Street, his mumbled encouragement for Brexit and his bleak lack of any political dynamism do nothing to at all corroborate his status as the favourite. It makes one think of how Mao Zedong was mostly carried on a litter on his “Long March” to power. Johnson has been waiting for over a decade for a grateful country to drop the premiership into his lap. It would be deeply ominous for our supposed meritocracy if a figure of such aristocratic indolence was allowed to be somehow wafted into the top job. It would hardly guarantee Brexit either.