Last week, a senior former Cabinet minister told friends that the Prime Minister was “in denial” about the thumping, and historic, rejection by the Commons of her plan for leaving the EU.
That tallied with the verdict of another senior figure who met her in the days after the vote, dismayed to find Mrs May’s “mind was closed” to options other than her own plan.
The assessments of both produced a wry smile from an acquaintance of mine, a civil servant who encountered Mrs May when she was Home Secretary. The experience was not a happy one. She was uncommunicative, stubborn, inflexible and reluctant to depart from her own fixed views, even when presented with evidence to the contrary.
Equally difficult to deal with was that Mrs May lacked empathy with others. She had no interest in, and even less skill at, forging consensus. Meetings would sometimes descend into awkward silences, with the Home Secretary simply staring down those present, while they wondered what to say. It was with a sigh of relief that the civil servant eventually moved on, later wholeheartedly agreeing with Kenneth Clarke’s characterisation of Mrs May as “a bloody difficult woman”.
The Prime Minister, in her occasional leaden attempts at humour, has tried to adopt that label for comic effect, perhaps reckoning that her audience might see in it a glimpse of Margaret Thatcher’s steeliness and resolve. But there’s a world of difference between resolve and inflexibility, and Mrs May is no Mrs Thatcher.
Viewed through the lens of this less-than-flattering assessment of her character by those who have witnessed it close up, the unholy mess that Brexit has become takes on a sharper focus. The most problematic and sensitive negotiation in modern British history has been undertaken by a politician with little apparent skill at dealing constructively with others. Bridges needed to be built between Britain and the EU, but the task of doing so was in the hands of somebody who had demonstrated no interest in fostering rapport.
Similarly, cross-party links that should have been central to Brexit so that the country and Parliament could feel that they were as united as possible in facing up to an uncertain future were ignored by a Prime Minister uninterested in the views of others.
She has eventually reached out only in the face of humiliation at the hands of MPs, which forced her into it. But even then, those coming out of meetings appear to have encountered the same stubbornness familiar to the civil servant attempting to establish a dialogue.
It would be unfair to lay all that has happened at Mrs May’s door. The task she inherited from David Cameron when he resigned was a thankless one, but there’s a powerful argument to be made that her own failings as a politician have made a bad situation worse.
The timeline of what has happened bears this out. She insisted on triggering Article 50 to set the Brexit process in motion before working out what the Government’s negotiating strategy should be, then dithered for more than two years before coming up with the plan that was rejected so overwhelmingly by MPs. Add to that holding a completely unnecessary general election, which destroyed her own majority, and you have a picture of unforced errors by a Prime Minister who was wrongly convinced that she was right.
Think back to the 2017 election, and the picture of an inflexible character who lacks the ability to establish a rapport with others is an exact fit with what happened. The campaign was all about Mrs May, and what the electorate saw was a stiff, awkward person unsure of what to say beyond wearying catchphrases like “strong and stable”, endlessly repeated.
The most electorally-successful prime ministers of modern times, Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair, established a rapport with the electorate, because it felt they understood their concerns. Is it possible that the lack of unity in the Cabinet over how best to proceed with Brexit is – at least in part – because Mrs May has little interest in forging consensus? It could be so. Departing ministers, whatever their own personal ambitions, have told aides that a problem with the entire process is that Mrs May too often kept her own counsel, preferring to spring her fixed view on them at the last minute and demand they acquiesce.
Every premier has character flaws, and history generally shows that they play a part in their downfall by compromising their judgement. The same will hold true for Mrs May, whenever she leaves office. But if her character also proves to have compromised Britain’s welfare post-Brexit, history’s verdict on her is going to be especially harsh.