A little over a week ago, the official portrait of the MP for Maidenhead, one Theresa May, was added to the depictions of former Prime Ministers which grace the main staircase in Number 10 Downing Street. Whilst Downing Street felt compelled to tweet about the arrival of the portrait of Britain's most recent former Prime Minister, as Simon Schama once noted, 'where you might have, in other great houses of state, even in the White House, huge portraits, larger than life size', we typically note the public service of our recently departed leaders with 'modest engravings and photographs of the ghosts of Downing Street'.
Just days after Theresa May joined this exclusive, if underwhelming, 'communion with history', she took to her feet on the floor of the House of Commons to comment on the government's highly controversial UK Internal Market Bill. In arguably the most devastating speech of her career, May savaged the government's decision to introduce legislation which would allow ministers to renege on parts of the Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union, warning MPs that, even if the provisions were never used, it would do 'untold damage' to the UK's international standing.
Recalling the aftermath of the Salisbury Novichok poisonings, May reflected that her administration was only able to convince countries around the world to expel Russian agents because of the trust that those nations had in the United Kingdom. Whilst I had little sympathy for her premiership, I find it difficult to disagree with her assessment that since 1945, our now woefully flagging 'reputation as a country' has been premised on being a nation which 'stands by its word' and abides by the rule of international law.
Whilst Theresa May's Cabinet was almost as supine as today's, after just over a year of Boris Johnson's premiership, in which the worst excesses of Brexiteers have been unleashed and the notion of securing a negotiated exit from the European Union has been all about abandoned, May increasingly appears, in the words of Jeremy Paxman, as the 'corporeal expression of an entire, generally discarded, worldview'.
At the very least, May seems sober, dignified and even responsible in comparison to those currently occupying the Great Offices of State. Even more so when, as the Daily Star
put it a week ago, the Prime Minister's master plan to deal with COVID-19 in England primarily consists of 'blah blah blah nonsense' and a healthy dose of 'BS'. As the Star
clarified, when the government said to go back to work and go to the pub on your way home, it actually meant 'DON'T go back to work' and 'DON'T go back to the pub if it's later than 10pm'.
As Britain's second woman Prime Minister, who, perhaps prophetically, chose Walk Like a Man
as her first record on Desert Island Discs
, Glenda Jackson has suggested that 'no man would have had to put up' with the kind of criticism that Theresa May was subjected to during her premiership. The double Oscar-winning actress, who sat in the Commons from 1992 to 2015, told Times Radio earlier this month, that she admired May's 'capacity to take the kind of appalling treatment she was subjected to', with Jackson believing the 'constant reducing of her not only as a politician but as a human being' to be particularly unpalatable.
The daughter of an Anglican priest, the Reverend Hubert Brasier, who began stuffing envelopes for the Conservative Party at the age of 12, May once suggested that her politics had always been motivated by the admittedly 'trite' desire to 'make a difference to people's lives'. Theresa May will not be judged as a particularly successful Prime Minister – nor, I suspect, a particularly liked one, for she did not preside over an era which will ever quicken the pulse with nostalgic warmth – but the strength of her belief in doing her duty as a public servant is far greater than either David Cameron's or Boris Johnson's.
For all of her faults as Prime Minister – primarily, as Andrew Rawnsley wrote in The Observer
in November 2019, the fact that she was a 'shy and inflexible introvert in a job that requires a supple capacity to develop relationships with voters' – her successor, who May herself thought was 'morally unfit' to occupy the premiership, is only enhancing the reputation of the woman whose time at the top he did so much to bring to a close.
Occupying the premiership is evidently not easy. It requires masses of energy, resilience, brain power in abundance and an acute sense of the gravity of the responsibilities that come with the keys to the black door. As Dr Rowan Williams reflected as he vacated the archbishop's throne in 2012, 'the first time you sit here you realise that you have countless new ways of getting things wrong, countless new responsibilities and expectations laid on you – and the likelihood is that you're going to get most of them wrong'. Noting that the premiership is 'not a bringer of serenity', Peter Hennessy once suggested that aspiring politicians or would-be MPs would do well to write down Dr Williams's words, place them in an envelope alongside a note asking themselves: 'Am I sure about this?'
In an astonishing article in The Times
on 19 September 2020, sources close to Boris Johnson lamented his luck. From being at the helm in rough seas to the fact that he has been through 'an expensive divorce and had his income drop by more than half', to the terrible privations of life in Downing Street where 'if he or Carrie want to go into the rose garden they have to go through the office', the Prime Minister, whose response to COVID-19 Tom Peck has likened to a 'C grade A Level essay', has spent more of his premiership than most feeling sorry for himself. Too hot, too cold, too poor, too overworked, too unpopular – Boris Johnson has proved that he is the undisputed Goldilocks of SW1A.
Throughout his political career, Johnson, who as a child declared his ambition to be 'King of the World', has shown himself incapable of hard work, graft, sensitivity, gumption, leadership, restraint, modesty, and honesty, let alone dignity. As Matthew Parris puts it, Johnson's appeal has always been 'about zing, about whizz-bang, sparkle, fizz, gusto, passion – and fun', but the experience of dealing with COVID-19 has shown that 'zing is as zing does and Johnson's zing has well and truly zung'.