Is Theresa May a Victim of “a Whiff” of Sexism?
Caroline Frost looks at whether Johnson’s deal is all that new
“Theresa May right now is every woman who’s ever said an idea in a meeting & had everyone ignore her only for a man to say the same idea two minutes later & have everyone congratulate the fuck out of him.”Sara Gibbs
Within seconds, the equally witty Craig @sevenstaruk, presumably male, had replied with… exactly the same words. And Sara came straight back with her final bon mot on the matter, “Congratulations, Craig. You did say it louder.”
Sara Gibbs said it best. In a sentence, she articulated the undercurrent that’s been bubbling away every time we’ve caught sight of the former British Prime Minister in recent days, ever since Boris Johnson returned from Brussels a week ago, trumpeting his bright ‘new’ deal that he’d wrestled from a previously intransigent EU.
This was a deal that many were swift to point out wasn’t particularly new at all, in fact passed more than a passing resemblance to the deal brought back by his predecessor Mrs May in January of this year, one that was systematically voted down three times by MPs in Parliament in a catalogue of humiliating defeats for the beleaguered PM – even after she dangled the carrot of her own imminent departure to try to push it across the line. ‘Vote for my idea and I promise to be out of your hair,’ is an unusual political manoeuvre of persuasion at the best of times, a clear sign of desperation, and one that unsurprisingly didn’t work. Within weeks, she was packing her leopard-print flats into a shoebox and vacating Downing Street.
Those familiar purring pumps were on show once again in the House of Commons on Saturday when she rose to her feet and ad-libbed knowingly, ‘I hope the whole House will forgive me if I say that, standing here, I have a distinct sense of déjà vu.’
If only she’d afforded herself such ribald asides during her time at the dispatch box, she may have succeeded in pulling more MPs in line with her mission. Instead, she was left to put what political weight she still has behind her successor, telling a hooked Chamber that it needed to honour the 2016 referendum result: ‘If this parliament did not mean it, it is guilty of the most egregious con trick on the British people.’ Her speech, displaying a passion for Brexit that no one saw during her tortuous tenure as PM, as well as her freshly sharp delivery that we haven’t heard for at least a year, got her the biggest cheer of the day and a standing ovation from the House.
But all this wryness, steeliness, unswerving focus on fulfilling Brexit and ability to keep her audience does raise the question, why did she fail where Boris Johnson could still feasibly pull a rabbit out of the hat and get us out of the European Union before… well, whenever?
Amber Rudd, former Cabinet Minister and one of Theresa May’s most loyal colleagues, complained bitterly of a “whiff of sexism” and “machismo” in the ERG’s treatment of Mrs May, after the hard-Brexit group trashed her plans but lined up to support Johnson. This goes some way to explaining the wide approval for Sara Gibbs’ tweet. It was both specifically about May’s plight, and universal in its relevance.
I think, however, that history will prove Theresa May to be a victim of two powerful but gender-free forces: personality and timing.
The latter she could do nothing about. Johnson’s backroom guru Dominic Cummings has successfully persuaded the country that we’re all over Brexit, hence Johnson’s transparently repeated phrase – ‘the people have had a bellyful’, hence the Tory Party’s mantra-ed promise to ‘Get Brexit Done’. Even though this simplistic message ignores the years ahead of future transactions, arguments, bills and amendments – there is no simply ‘getting it done’ for any of us – Johnson and his team have clearly taken the helm of the boat as a weary nation, MPs and electorate both, is inclined to decide it’s time to come to shore.
The same goes for the threat of No-Deal. That same backroom guru has successfully pushed us backwards into believing that we could feasibly have left the EU by the end of October. With such an intolerable idea looming, we’ve all been conditioned to be grateful for whatever Johnson returned with from Brussels, and MPs clearly feel the same. You only have to look at how quickly the Tory Rebels, previously stripped of the whip, have fallen back into line to support the PM’s new proposals. The same goes for the EU, re-opening negotiations we were told back in the summer were forever closed, and dramatically moving on the backstop.
More significant, though, is the cult of personality. For a start, even though she has always played her cards close to her chest and been tireless in her mission to execute the will of the people, few have believed her heart lay in it, and perhaps the Brussels bureaucrats needed to be staring a convinced Leaver in the face. Similarly, the ERG and other hard-Brexit MPs needed to be sure it was “one of their own” out there fighting their corner. Never mind Johnson’s previous indecision and clear self-interest, he’s mustered a better impression of a Eurosceptic in recent weeks than May ever did.
And a better impression of a leader, too, it has to be said. However tiresome and problematic our current PM’s clownish antics have long proved to be, they can at least be relied upon when things don’t go to plan. Consider those letters falling off the board at the Tory Party conference as May strove to be strong, consider the croak in the broken voice at the dispatch box, and how much mileage Johnson would have obtained from both. May was insufficiently fleet of foot, hence the increasingly leaden ‘Brexit means Brexit’ hinting at a dearth of imagination in desperate times.
It seems increasingly true that, in politics, weaknesses are strengths wrongly deployed. Thus Theresa May’s resoluteness over her red lines became intransigence, while the moving sands of Brexit allow Johnson’s ‘greased piglet’ wriggling to be rebranded as flexibility and, don’t even whisper it, statesmanship. Come the hour, come the man…or woman, of course. Just not in this case.