May’s Moment

Theresa May is creating a crisis moment — but what will she do with it?

Theresa May under Open Gov’t Licence v3.0

It is possible that she’s just lost it. We tend to assume that public figures are in full possession of their faculties — partly because the alternative is utterly terrifying, and partly because a political debate in which everyone just accuses everyone else of being mad doesn’t really get very far, and contrary to present appearances our system is based on the idea of collegial debate. The “Loyal Opposition” is there to temper the government’s worser impulses and present counter-arguments. Not being in government is, perversely, to have a fundamental role in the process of government.

But if Theresa May were the boss of a local business and it was going as badly as this and meeting this kind of resistance to a flagship product, and if everyone was just vile to her day in and day out and told her she was a monster and blocked her every effort at delivering what she thought the customer wanted… we might well give credence to the idea that a sudden stasis and an apparent inability to move in any reasonable direction meant she’d just tipped over into an emotional and cognitive halting state. There’s no reason I know of that that cannot be true of a Prime Minister.

But assume for a moment that she is what she appears to be: a political operator with a thick skin dealing with the most contentious issue in her political life. When May ascended to what now looks more like the Iron Throne than occupancy of Number 10 Downing Street is really supposed to, even people opposed to her said “well, she’s smart, it could be worse.” And indeed, on paper, it could have been much worse.

But now, after a Brexit process characterised by the rapid departure of almost everyone who originally espoused it from positions of direct responsibility for delivering it, we enter the endgame. May’s heavy-handed approach has led us here, and in this moment of genuine national crisis, the leader chiefly famous for inflexibility in this negotiation is abruptly sponsoring the destruction of her own bargain. It’s a bad bargain in pursuit of a bad end, but it is notable for one thing: it’s the only bargain on the table.

So what is she up to?

If she hasn’t just folded entirely in on herself under the pressure of absurd demands and self-imposed limitations, it seems to me that she’s deliberately creating a crisis. This is shock doctrine: if a situation is absolutely locked by its constituent parts and by external pressures, the only chance of changing direction is an explosion. In the moment of shock, some things will fracture and others will realign and new outcomes are possible. Both the Tory right and the Labour left have been accused of wanting this, each supposedly believing that in the ensuing chaos their particular vision of the future can be enforced on the rest of the country. It isn’t an uncommon idea, just a very bad one — as with real explosions, so with political and social ones: you never entirely know where the force will go, what parts of the structure may prove to be weaker than expected, or where the pieces will land. Revolutionists throughout history have looked down on the chaos they wrought with dismay, stunned to discover that their model did not perfectly predict the outcome. Quite often their viewpoint has been the pointy end of a pike.

But May is not obviously a fantasist. If there is anyone in British politics right now less fitted to T.E. Lawrence’s description of the “dreamers of the day” it’s hard to know who it might be. So what will she do with her crisis, if she gets it? The answers are painfully familiar, though perhaps she wants to create a given landscape which favours her own party over the others, or perhaps given the internal wrangles of the Tory Party she can only reach some of them through crisis — so much of the last three years has been about the Tory Party talking to itself rather than to the country or the EU..

No Deal

Depressingly, one of the more likely options: she will put party over country and use the chaos to share the blame for what comes evenly with Labour. She will become effectively a wartime prime minister, with all the pomp and power that entails, and do her best to shatter any chance of Labour’s stated agenda ever being implemented. The fantasy of the Tory right is realised: low tax low spend Britain, open for business with the predatory US healthcare market and with few if any protections for workers. For bonus fun: Martial Law under Auntie Theresa. What could possibly go wrong?


Not impossible, but dazzlingly unlikely: she declares Brexit a flop and dumps the ensuing mess in the lap of her successor, leaving Corbyn to try to placate the increasingly restive Remain portion of his base. If he can’t come out swinging on their behalf, he can’t redeem his present refusal to oppose Brexit. If he can’t show the Leave marginals that he really meant Leave, perhaps they won’t love him either. Would Labour survive the impact? Maybe. The Conservative Party would probably fall apart. At this point, perhaps she doesn’t care — and perhaps no one should. Maybe what we need is the next election fought by several parties (Tory split, Lab split, SNP, Green, LD) each with 5–20% of the electorate. Perhaps we might even get PR.

People’s Vote

Arguably a bad solution, but there aren’t a lot of good ones. In a crisis, she could grudgingly allow someone else to table it, forcing Corbyn off the fence, then let it happen and see where the chips fell. They might fall in favour of her deal. Which brings us all the way back around to…

Her Own Deal

This seems the most likely: she will create a crisis, then remind everyone that there is Brexit route out of it which is an alternative to revocation. Her agreement annoys everyone, but set against No Deal with no time left for anything else, it might pass.

So is there something else?

Well, yes and no. There are other things, but they seem far-fetched. There is, for example, triggering an actual collapse of normal function in the UK and creating a kind of Tory Year Zero, with Parliament temporarily dissolved to deal with the crisis, and laws amended under the Civil Contingencies Act. (The act is broad, though not unlimited, but it strikes me that changes made to, for example, the NHS during an emergency might ultimately be irrevocable when normal services were resumed.) The notion of using the crisis to reshape Britain beyond retrieval in the direction favoured by the Tories seems acutely paranoid, but it wouldn’t be out of line with the rhetoric of ERG with reference to Europe, nor with that of the Trump administration in the US.

The Takeaway:

It’s dangerous to think of May’s actions right now as either irrational or unconsidered. If she is deliberately creating a crisis, then it’s important if you don’t like her choices thus far to be ready for her final move. Moments of crisis are not locked to a given outcome, however hard those who engineer them would have it otherwise. Know what you want and make sure you are in touch with others who share that desire and you can pull the onward track towards your goal.

[[Addendum — 11:30am, still January 29th 2019]]

Having written this and re-read it, I feel a bit more confident about what she’s up to, and I figure I owe it to you to share my best guess. I think she’s looking for a crisis push for her own deal — which puts her in a comparatively strong position to stay as PM — or to be shunted into a People’s Vote with her deal versus Remain. Why?

  1. If she gets her deal through, she wins. She beats the ERG and the Remain teams and she looks like a PM who can get things done. At the same time she’s probably doing that with Labour support, and they share what comes, and the YouGov polling has Labour supporting any Brexit dropping to third place in a crunch election, which abruptly makes her a political mastermind.
  2. If she’s forced into a People’s Vote, she can blame everyone else if Brexit is stopped, or claim victory if her deal goes through. Again, if it happens, Labour has to decide on a position, and the polling has that as hugely troubling for Corbyn’s party, which was internally split when he was elected in 2015 on the question of what Labour really is and who it belongs to, and which could fracture along those lines as amplified through the Brexit lens.