Patrick Mercer: A leader must lead, and Theresa May cannot

I SPENT last week on a bricklaying course. There were half a dozen men of a certain age from South Yorkshire and the East Midlands. No one came from Zone One; there wasn't a snowflake in sight and 'privilege' was a stranger. But one political sentiment came through loud and clear: 'We just want someone to get us out on this bloody mess!' They wanted a leader.

Prime Minister Theresa May arrives back at 10 Downing Street. Should she be replaced?
Prime Minister Theresa May arrives back at 10 Downing Street. Should she be replaced?

Vividly, I remembered how shocked I was in 2011 during the London riots. The uproar was Theresa May’s first, serious test as Home Secretary and the Prime Minister came to the despatch box and shamefully blamed the police for letting the situation get out of control. Then Mrs May spoke: it was her chance to back her workforce, to rebuke David Cameron, to stamp her authority and show some leadership. But what did we get? Just more of the same.

Then Grenfell. Anyone with the slightest inkling of leadership would have seen that a swift and incisive appearance by the Premier would have helped enormously. It would have shown the bereaved, the frightened, the angry survivors of that horror that she was not only listening but that she could and would talk to ordinary people, and that she was their champion.

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But there’s worse. Our Prime Minister told us that there would be no election, that no deal would be better than a bad deal, that she would never see a border between England and Northern Ireland and that there would be a ‘‘meaningful vote’’. Well, there was an election (didn’t that go well?), ‘‘no deal’’ is now taboo, the backstop means a border and the ‘‘meaningful vote’’ has proved to be meaningless!

There are those who say that the Prime Minister has been badly advised. Perhaps. But the job of a leader is to lead. Of course a leader will listen to his or her subordinates, weigh their advice and make a plan, but when the person in charge stands on their hind feet and says what the decision is, it means ‘follow me’, not follow the people that have put me up to this. It leaves you wondering whether what the Prime Minister says is the opposite of what will really happen. And she’s said, of course, that she’s categorically opposed to another referendum...

I’m also reminded of a commander I had in Belfast when The Troubles were in full swing. He was good in peacetime – cocksure in well polished boots – but at the sharp end he wilted. He didn’t run or collapse, but he avoided taking decisions. By making himself busy and zipping around visiting sentries, platoon bases and police stations, he was never there when the bullets began to fly.

He came to mind during Mrs May’s recent trip around the country. He, like Britain’s commander at the moment, was always laudably busy but always too busy to exercise real leadership.

Now she has attracted headlines about her resilience, but there comes a point when you have to ask if her industry hasn’t blurred her hold on reality. For instance, during her statement on Monday, she claimed credit for having fully published the legal advice on the backstop authored by the Attorney General. My jaw hit the floor: wasn’t this the same advice which she had personally, bitterly opposed publishing until her Government was ruled in contempt of Parliament? This felt like her reaction to the debacle of the last election. There was only one person who seemed untroubled by the erosion of her power and leadership – the very person who had to exercise both. The decision to delay this Brexit vote, though, shows me that she cannot carry on.

Wouldn’t it have been so much better to suffer a heavy defeat and then go to Europe with a clear warning that ‘‘no deal’’ was imminent unless some concessions are made? Now, that would concentrate minds in Brussels. Be in no doubt, Britain crashing out of the EU would temporarily dent our economy, but it would hurt Ireland and seriously harm France which has enough problems already.

But what price the bold Brexiteers? Surely they should now be filling the vacuum that Mrs May has left: where’s their leadership, where’s their alternate leader and where’s their plan? The ERG’s shop steward, Steve Baker, tells us that David Davis, Dominic Raab, Boris Johnson and Esther McVey stand ready: come on then. No more time wasting, no more accumulation of ministerial salaries and pension rights: the bricklayers are right, Britain needs a leader, someone who can get out of this bloody mess.

Patrick Mercer is an ex-soldier and the former Conservative MP for Newark.