Saturday 2 November 2019

The Woman Without Qualities

I shall not waste my time reading the 700 pages of David Cameron's memoirs. The excerpts in the Sunday Times showed that he is suffering from a depression brought on by the referendum result and is trying to convince himself that, had he not done so, someone else would have called a referendum anyway. This is impossible to disprove but sounds unlikely in the medium term. In the long term we are all dead (Keynes).

I found Sir Anthony Seldon's book on Mr Blair unreadably dry, like chewing straw, but his one on Mrs May, just out, sounded compelling, in the way that car crashes are compelling. 

We learn from an excerpt published in the Times that, when the referendum result became known, Theresa May broke down and sobbed. 
“The ones who voted for Brexit will be the ones who suffer the most” 
she told Nick Timothy, one of the two aides who largely controlled her from her long undistinguished tenure at the Home Office until they were forced by MPs to resign after the results of the 2017 election came in. 

Later in 2017, Gavin, now Lord Barwell (was ever a peerage less deserved?), who had partly taken over their role of telling Mr May what to do, told the International Trade Secretary of State, Liam Fox: 
“We’re only putting in the backstop so we can take it out — don’t worry, you’ll never have to vote on it.”
What does this mean? 

I assume it means that the plan was to have a customs union with the EU, making the backstop unnecessary.

Quentin Letts wrote an amusing and shocking review of Sir Anthony's book in the Times, which publishes today a second extract from the book. 

But can I bear to relive it all? Anyway, I have read Tim Shipman's books. 

Sir Anthony has secured good, on the record, interviews, but he is no better a writer than he was fifteen years ago, judging by the excerpts in the Sunday Times. 

I think I shall leave it at that and read a biography of Boris instead. 

Douglas Murray argued in Unherd yesterday that the counter-culture is now the culture and the establishment no longer exists. In fact, a lot of the counter-culture has been adopted by the establishment, but it still goes strong. Sir Anthony is part of it, though he is the grandson of Jewish refugees from Tsarist Russia and the son of Arthur Seldon, the free market theorist, of 'Seldon Man' fame. He was headmaster of Wellington before becoming Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham.

From Mr Letts' review.

'After weepily announcing her resignation outside 10 Downing Street, Theresa May told Gavin Barwell, her chief of staff: “I’m sorry for crying.” Barwell replied: “Don’t apologise. You have nothing to apologise for.” Anthony Seldon, reporting this conversation, moistly suggests that Barwell’s words could have been “a valediction to her entire premiership”. Readers of his 640-page account of May’s neuralgic time at the top may feel less indulgent to this brine-washed limpet of a prime minister, as incurious and foggy a figure as ever led this country.

'Seldon dedicates the book to the cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, “and to the civil service he led, the finest in the world”. Is it wise for a historian, starting an account of three years when Whitehall was so painfully exposed, to assert his sympathies with such force? Heywood, who died of cancer in 2018, is certainly a significant figure in the story. Immediately after the 2017 general election, when a shattered May was falling asleep in urgent meetings, it was Heywood (having only just learnt of his cancer prognosis) who took a grip. It was Heywood who reorganised Whitehall after the Brexit referendum. It was Heywood, remarkably, who in 2016 selected many of May’s junior ministers. 'She left that to him and Gavin Williamson, her chief whip, because she had little idea about her fellow Tory MPs — she barely knew their names.
'....Osborne gives a detailed description of the moment he was sacked by May, when she spoke to him as “an older sister” and told him “to get to know the Conservative party better”. Ripe from her! “It was like an out-of-body experience,” says Osborne. “I couldn’t believe I was on the wrong end of such an amateur way of doing business.” That is authentic Osborne: he was indignant not so much for being sacked as for the fact it was not done with greater finesse.
Keynes said that when Lloyd George was alone in a room the room was empty. Who doubts that this is true of Mrs May - and not true at all of her successor? 

Theresa May did not attempt to build personal relationships with other world leaders. This was a big limitation but she was right not to try, because she is not capable of building any relationships, other than that with her husband. 

Boris, by contrast, built in a very short time very close relationships with Jean-Claude Juncker and, as the Atlantic’s Tom McTague explained, with Leo Varadkar. This what made Boris's deal possible.
“Officials in both London and Dublin are clear that if the talks had been left in the hands of technocratic EU negotiators, a deal would not have been reached. This was an agreement made by Johnson and Varadkar themselves, built on risk and face-to-face diplomacy.”
Sir Anthony Seldon confirms what I had assumed, that Boris resigned as Foreign Secretary after the cabinet meeting at Chequers because David Davis resigned, though Boris had argued at Chequers in favour of rethinking the whole strategy. 
"Waiting foreign ministers and dignitaries were stood up by Johnson at a West Balkans summit he was supposed to be hosting, while he secreted himself away in the foreign secretary’s official residence in Carlton House Gardens, not taking any calls, composing his resignation letter — and calling in a photographer for good measure. Anxious to deter him, May tried to speak to him. Several attempts from No 10 failed, but eventually they got him on the line. “What are you planning to do, Boris?” May asked him. He kept avoiding her question, going round in circular arguments, and only at the end of a long and swirling conversation did he confirm that he would be leaving. As foreign secretary, he had not developed into the thoughtful figure, with gravitas at home and internationally, that May had exhorted him to become almost exactly two years before on his appointment. Now she was livid at his resignation."
I bet that humourless woman was. Boris's resignation in turn made her fall inevitable, in the view of the very clever George Osborne.

Sir Anthony makes clear that Theresa May very much enjoyed the trappings of office. This explains why it was so appallingly hard to prise her from office, wasting many available months while the Brexit clock ticked down. 

Just as he mentions immigration in his book on Mr Blair only once, to wonder why he wasted time and energy talking about cutting it, he says of Mrs May
"Her views on immigration damaged Britain’s overseas relations."
She is the only important British politician who really cares about bringing the number of immigrants down to the tens of thousands - it is her one redeeming feature - and she failed to get anywhere near her target.

Vanity and will to power, not a sense of duty, explain the priggish and empty Theresa May. 

I recommend this article by Camilla Tominey, as the best thing I ever read about her.

Theresa May took losing her job very badly. 
There was no rapprochement even after [Boris] became frontrunner. May thought Johnson morally unfit to be prime minister. She was in anguish about having the job taken from her, and distraught that it would be him to follow.
If only he, or Michael Gove, or any other Leaver had become Prime Minister in 2016, rather than her. 

To adapt what Lord Macaulay said of Queen Anne, Theresa May is one of the smallest people ever set in a great place. 

At least Queen Anne didn't do much harm and couldn't have been quite as boring.

Theresa May was woefully not up to the job of Prime Minister or probably any cabinet job. She was very lacking in self confidence and possessed no leadership skills. 

Matthew Parris put it best.
"She is mean. She is rude. She is cruel. She is stupid. I have heard that from almost everyone who has dealt with her," Parris says. He said he had never expected this much hatred, "and that is not a word I use lightly."

The worst thing, though, he says, is May's inability to win over others to her position, to compromise and to lead. "It's crazy," says Parris. "That someone like her would end up in a job where the most important thing is to communicate, answer questions, make decisions. That is, I believe, more of a psychological than a political problem."
She has some things in common with her biographer who, like his subject, is diligent but never eloquent or enjoyable. He too reminds me of a remark of Macaulay's, his  comparison of Dryden with an ostrich who runs fast but never soars, though Dryden a very good writer.


  1. 'reading the 700 pages of David Cameron's memoirs...'

    There may well be hidden depths to the man — great thoughts, strategies, a hinterland — but if so they remain hidden after this book, and probably always will. Or perhaps the truth is there on the page, hiding in plain sight, and there really is even less to David Cameron than meets the eye.

    The man who wasn’t there
    James Kirkup reviews David Cameron’s memoirs

  2. Thank you - a very good article.

    He writes well but does not mention Cameron's biggest achievement - destroying Libya - helped by Hillary, M. Sarkozy, Lord Hague and Bernard-Henri Lévy.

    JK is the most convinced pro immigrationist you'll find in the Tory press, which is saying an awful lot. Maybe Alex Massie is equal to him.

  3. "Perhaps one day, even David Cameron will be able to appreciate the irony of his downfall: the man who became Conservative leader promising to end the party's appetite for strife over Europe has been destroyed by his decision to feed that hunger. For now though, he could be forgiven for a touch of bitterness about how cruelly political fortunes can turn." James Kirkup