Is It Ok To Admire Theresa May, Even If You Fundamentally Disagree With Her Politics?

Or are our complicated feelings about our current Prime Minister a testament to what a mess the country's in, asks Vicky Spratt

Theresa May Brexit

by Vicky Spratt |

At the end of last week I could barely look at the rolling news coverage of the Brexit deal. With every resignation, the anxious feeling of having drunk too much coffee rose up inside me. With every pundit’s guess at what it could all mean, my desire to shout at Twitter increased. And, when I looked at the headshots of the MPs who are trying to force a vote of no confidence in Theresa May, their overwhelming maleness and whiteness made me want to cry in frustration.

Brexit has sliced our country’s underbelly wide open. We can see our inner workings and it isn’t pretty.

In all this chaos, Theresa May’s defiant speeches oddly comforting. I found myself nodding and thinking “thank God she’s telling all those egomaniacs to pipe down” and then had to check myself. “No, stop it” I said to myself “she is doing nothing about abortion rights in Northern Ireland because she needs the DUP’s votes and she has oversaw a series of hostile environment policies when she was at the Home Office.” And, then, I remembered the fresh and scathing report from UN rapporteur Philip Alston which has found that austerity is has caused ‘great misery’ all over this country. Sure, May wasn’t PM when austerity policies were imposed but she could, at least, say something about the report. But no, she sent Amber Rudd out to blithely dismiss it on her behalf.

I have deja vu. It’s like when I started feeling sorry for her at Tory party conference 2017 despite still being furious at her for calling a general election all over again. As she was overcome by a coughing fit, as letters from her party’s slogan fell off the wall behind her and as protesters stormed the stage to hand her a P45 my heart started to go out to her.

Theresa May, to me, is the teacher at school whose rules I loathed, whose ideals I fundamentally disagreed with but whose immovability I couldn’t help but admire. I mean, if you’re going to have a stance on anything, I guess it’s better to have conviction in it and, for all she might lack, May does seem to have conviction. She is pushing ahead with Brexit because “that’s what people voted for”, steering the country away from no deal and refusing to rise to the Shakespearean psychodrama of her own party.

And then, I can’t help but feel that May has been handed an impossible job in which she is doomed to fail no matter what she does. We know that women in politics have a harder time before they’ve even won an election and May finds herself on a glass cliff.

The glass cliff is the glass ceiling’s pernicious cousin. It is the well known phenomenon of organisations being more likely to choose women leaders during periods of downturn and crisis, when the stakes are highest. Studies show that women in these situations - whether in business law or politics - are given impossible tasks. Like them, May is at the head of an ungovernable government after she was ‘bought in to clean up the mess the Brexit boys made’.

Theresa May took on a job she knew would be fraught with obstacles meanwhile, only this weekend did ardent Brexiteer Michael Gove turn down the role of Brexit Secretary. Perhaps he knows it is a poisoned chalice - a glass cliff - and he’d much rather stay on solid ground, let May do the hard work so he can swoop in further down the line and save us all?

And so, I oscillate wildly between thinking that the Prime Minister is ‘a serious person for serious times’, being quietly grateful that it’s her in charge and not a hideous Gove/Johnson/Rees-Mogg hydra and wanting to write her a stern seven page bullet-pointed letter of complaint.

I’m not alone in my contentious empathy for the Prime Minister. Last week the actor Michaela Cole provoked a Twitter storm after she tweeted praising May’s appearance in the Commons to defend her Brexit deal:

Under the circumstances, it’s easy to see how someone who didn’t vote for May might find themselves able to admire her. But perhaps the question is not whether Theresa May’s politics should prevent you from feeling sympathy for her. After all, feeling compassion for another person, being able to empathise with them is not a selective emotional reflex, it’s possible to separate ideology and emotion - to disagree with someone and be able to sympathise with them. Emotions aren’t logical and we shouldn’t expect them to be, that’s the cornerstone of being human.

The question we should be asking is whether the fact that Theresa May evokes admiration even in those who don’t align with her politically is actually testament to what a mess our country is in. When you consider the other options - Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg who seem only to care about themselves or Jeremy Corbyn who says he doesn’t know how he would vote in another referendum - having a love/hate relationship with the Prime Minister starts to make sense. She, at least, seems consistent.

And, in such chaotic times there’s something comforting about consistency. The behemoth that is Brexit is like has become so complex, so dramatic and so impossible to keep up with that it’s difficult to see clearly.

It’s like when you’ve been in a rollercoaster relationship with someone who exhibits the Dark Triad characteristics and you suddenly start to see the mundane appeal of someone totally unsuitable because they occasionally cook you a nice hot meal. Your defences are down, your brain is muddled and so you start making bad decisions when you should be at your most discerning.

I don’t want to feel reassured when I see the Prime Minister on TV saying that getting rid of her won’t make Brexit any easier. That, in and of itself, is a worrying prospect which says more about Brexit and the fact that the Conservative party is eating itself from the inside out than it does about Theresa May.

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