May at the helm: Incompetent from the outset

Her gamble on a general election last year was unnecessary.

May at the helm: Incompetent from the outset

Only the most fervent and forgiving of Ms May’s supporters will argue, even today, that her performance as Britain’s prime minister and her handling of the country’s Brexit challenge has been outstandingly excellent. It has, from her first days in office, been outstandingly incompetent.

Her gamble on a general election last year was unnecessary. Having called it, the campaign she led was laughably third-rate. It resulted in the loss of a good-enough majority in the House of Commons and its replacement, at a cost of £1bn, with a confidence and supply pact with Arlene Foster’s 10 Westminster MPs.

Her command of the Brexit negotiation with Brussels and the EU27 has turned, step by each faltering step, a challenge — albeit an immense one — into a crisis

Two Cabinet ministers given the task of hammering out a deal with the Commission resigned when they discovered the hard labour of the real negotiation was being done behind their backs by a civil servant in a government department known for its pro-EU worldview.

The outcome is a draft agreement that aims to satisfy both remainers and leavers but which fails for quite different reasons to please sufficient numbers to get it across the line in a Commons she has treated with contempt while allowing, Brexiteers claim, Brussels to get away with not only weaponising this country’s north-south border question but threatening the territorial integrity of the union described by Mrs May as “precious”.

Throughout this farrago — it’s anything but a comedy — of errors, she has taken her script from Hilaire Belloc’s poem, ‘Jim’: “Always keep a-hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse.” It’s my agreement deal, or no deal, or no Brexit. Yesterday, it was much the same: It’s me or a probable general election which, given my scintillating record, I shall probably lose and no Brexit.

An inspiring appeal it wasn’t, but it was sufficient to get her across the line and back in Downing St, where she faces the problem that was there the day before: a draft EU-UK agreement that without changes has no prospect of being approved by the Commons but which, Brussels insists, cannot be re-worked.

The majority of Britain’s Conservative MPs, be they remainers or leavers, would agree now — some more privately than others — that Ms May was the wrong choice for the job back in 2016, either because she never has grasped or been interested in the philosophical and trade arguments for leaving the club, or because she simply doesn’t have it in the negotiations department.

Last night’s vote of confidence was a Pyrrhic victory for her, as she recognised when she told her MPs last night that she would not be leading the Conservatives into the next general election. Her win changes nothing, given that numbers and policy positions in the Commons remain unchanged. There is no majority for a deal-less withdrawal. Leavers have sufficient numbers to kill a bill for a second referendum. The main opposition party will vote for anything likely to bring the government down but it, too, in office would want parts of the withdrawal draft changed, or says it would.

Ms May is left with the task now of getting concessions from Dublin and Brussels on the legal wording of the backstop plan — which all parties insist they do not want to see reached — so that the 27 and Britain can move on to discussing the shape of a future trading regime that would eliminate the need for such a contingency. It will probably be the last thing she does as prime minister.

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