Theresa May is a puzzle. For a start, what does she want?
Not “the best possible deal for the British people.” We already have the best deal we are ever going to get. If she thinks she can blackmail, schmooze or bully a deal that is almost as good out of 27 EU member states which have a vested interest in denying it to her, she’s a fool. Which does not seem to be the case.
While talking of the “best possible deal”, she is going for a brutalist one. Out of the single market, which means “no” to free movement of peoples among other things. Goodbye fruit pickers, hello low-wage labour. Farewell, already, the advance cohorts of several banks.
Is she reckless? Hardly. Even recklessness needs to be coherent. In any case, observe the deliberate calm, the mantle of unflinching resolution, the watchful eyes (though there is more to be said about the eyes). Reflect on her choice of subject at university: Geography. Does it stir the pulse? Yet the course is reckless.
Could she be playing a deep game? At the beginning of this sorry saga, there was a theory afloat that she had set Davis, Fox and Johnson up to fail. If she had, that would explain the hard Brexit. The fact that Boris has not yet imploded, and that the wheels have not yet come off the chariot although it is rocking alarmingly, does not prove this hope groundless. However, over the months it has ceased to convince. The reason for this is rooted in May’s character. It would take courage and a difficult kind of integrity, qualities appropriate to a spy working under cover, to carry through what May is doing if she secretly wants Brexit to fail. And the suspicion is that she simply isn’t up to it.
But, undeniably, she is working like Boxer in Animal Farm. “I will fly harder,” one imagines her saying over her cocoa. The first thing she did after becoming Prime Minister was go to Edinburgh to see Nicola Sturgeon. This was sensible enough, given the distinct possibility that if Britain left the EU, Scotland might leave Britain. But then came Berlin, Paris, The Hague, Rome, Belfast, Dublin, Warsaw, Washington, Ankara, Malta… she is in ceaseless motion like a hamster on a wheel. Such to-ing and fro-ing is reminiscent of Kissinger in the 1970s. But Kissinger was America’s fixer-in-chief and there was a nuclear war to prevent. There may once again be a nuclear war to prevent, but May’s shuttling between European capitals will not prevent it. And she is the Prime Minister. Frankly, it’s starting to look undignified. It’s a bit embarrassing. Can’t Boris do some of it? He must be good for something.
Why do people work as if under the whip? Some are, of course. Of those who aren’t, it may be they have a remorseless work ethic. It seems likely Theresa May has. After all, she is a Vicar’s daughter and may be expected to have a strong sense of duty. Yet somehow, on inspection, this reason doesn’t fit quite as well as one thought it would. It slips sideways, like the wrong saddle on a horse. Duty is a straightforward thing. There is a transparency to it. Through the effort, one can see the goal.
There is no transparency in Theresa May. Since taking office as Prime Minister, she has perfected opacity. She started by iterating, and reiterating, a tautology which, although widely mocked, was successful in that it reduced thought to baffled rage: “Brexit means Brexit.” She further announced that she would give no “running commentary” on Britain’s talks with the EU, thus simultaneously refusing legitimate requests for information and insulting her questioners. She honed the habit of dropping what sounded like hints of policy and retracting them immediately afterwards. She used plain language (to masterly effect, sometimes), but behind the language there was nothing. She intended to say nothing. Everything she said, in effect, was a riddle.
She is still speaking in riddles. She is still saying that she intends to deliver to the British people something which she knows is not on offer and working inhumanly hard to achieve it. Meanwhile, she is playing dice with the economy and Britain’s future, and throwing herself figuratively and almost literally into the arms of the last man on the planet who should be allowed to have any influence over her country.
And she knows that, too. Look at her body-language as she walks with Donald Trump down the White House steps, her hand in his hand. Her face is a mask, her body is silently screaming.
Why is she doing this?
Theresa May is sane and stone-cold sober. But look at the face again. Refusal to communicate has turned it sphinx-like. Occasionally there is a flash of panic in the eyes.
The sphinx asked a riddle. It said nothing else. It was always the same riddle, and not particularly interesting, but no-one could answer it. Until someone answered it, the sphinx was clearly going to go on doing what it was doing, which was terrorise Thebes. The riddle was eventually answered by Oedipus.
There’s another way of telling this story. It wasn’t that the sphinx refused to communicate. It wanted very badly to communicate but it could only ask its riddle. Oedipus released it.
What is imprisoning Theresa May? For something is. It feels as if she is waiting for someone to break open her silence. Waiting for someone to stop her destroying Thebes – because she, now, cannot stop.
You find this too poetic? She is, after all, a woman made of prose.
But it’s either that, or that she will do anything, anything at all, to stay in power.
Take your pick.