Before attempting to digest the European Elections, let me say a word about Prime Minister Theresa May, who announced her departure last week.
Politics does not do pity well. Opponents are rarely sympathetic to the painful realities of politics, and most of us owe it to the public to be honest in analysis. But I don’t find it difficult to be sympathetic in human terms- a colleague I have known for many years saw her life of public service crowned by the highest office, and then found it falling apart around her, a fall witnessed by the world in a manner few private citizens ever have to endure.
As with most tragedies, the strengths which gave her position contributed to her downfall. The private nature of her personality, lauded as a contrast to self-seeking publicists, and her behind the scenes absorption of detail and caution, hailed as the reason for her longevity at the Home Office, both became characteristics unable to adapt to her new role. Premature judgements on red lines became millstones weighing down her negotiations; her determination to keep seeking compromise long after it was made hopeless by her MPs turned resilience into stubbornness.
I will always be grateful she offered me a Minister of State role at DFID and the FCO, an honour to serve until the pressures of Brexit separated us just a few weeks ago. She was the fourth PM I served in Government, and the sixth Tory leader I have worked for in some capacity. She is by some way the one who had the hardest task and most unfortunate combination of circumstances. Like all our former leaders, I hope she finds some future solace and peace as she reflects on the many successes of her life on behalf of her constituents and people.
I suppose it is an inevitable extra cruelty that Theresa May leaves office in the wake of the Conservative Party’s worst ever electoral defeat- similar to a 6-0 Cup Final horror show. That Labour suffered also is scant comfort. Both main parties faithfully reflect the UK- don’t laugh. We each have passionate Brexiteers and Remainers, and our party position reflects this to some degree. But it’s not what people want on this issue. We cannot vote for both, so in a binary election like last week supporters of each deserted in droves to vote for something which pundits suggest is more important to them than their traditional loyalties. The result was clear long before the declarations.
You can read the results anyway you like. Brexit won of course, but the counting of pro-hard Brexit against Remain parties votes tells a different story, apparently. Whatever. I find myself confirmed in a view I have offered to constituents over many months- the UK is divided as near fifty-fifty as makes no difference and that is the reality we have to deal with.
But we now have a pause. In case we occasionally forget, it’s not all about us and there is another party to the UKs own dilemma. The EU has only just concluded its elections and new Parliamentary and Commission leadership will follow, and take time. And the Conservative Party must choose a new leader for the nation. So there will now be much talk about Brexit, but little action for a while. I would only ask leadership contenders not to take impossible positions early, under whatever pressure, and level with the public all the time just how difficult future trade-offs may be.
One footnote if I may. I said above that the UK is divided fifty-fifty. I think increasingly that is not true. Scotland, Northern Ireland want to remain in the EU, and Wales has moved in that direction. It is England that is driving this. This is not good news for the United Kingdom. If we leave the EU badly, I give the Union no more than a decade. And if we leave the EU well, it may still be threatened. The very act of Brexit, not simply how we manage it, has pulled the thread of the suit.