Euan McColm: At least Theresa May's not the other guy

After saving us from her reprehensible, incompetent colleagues and opponents, the Prime Minister should do the honourable thing, says Euan McColm
The Prime Minister has come out on top in her party but her Brexit deal faces a mauling in the House of Commons. Picture: Olga Akmen/GettyThe Prime Minister has come out on top in her party but her Brexit deal faces a mauling in the House of Commons. Picture: Olga Akmen/Getty
The Prime Minister has come out on top in her party but her Brexit deal faces a mauling in the House of Commons. Picture: Olga Akmen/Getty

Shortly after news of the death of former American president George Bush senior broke last month, photographs of a handwritten letter he’d left in the Oval Office for his successor – Bill Clinton – appeared online.

It was a rather unremarkable missive in which the departing commander-in-chief wrote of the privilege of serving and wished the 42nd president luck in his new role. It was the sort of note that any polite person – you or I for example – might have been expected to write in the circumstances,

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But these are strange times and Bush’s letter was held up as the work of a great statesman. With Donald Trump now in the White House, a US president behaving as anything other than a lout seemed quite astonishing.

I must admit to having indulged in my own bit of revisionism when George W Bush delivered the eulogy at his father’s funeral. Never an admirer of Dubya, I listened to him speak to a congregation which included Trump, and thought “well, I’d have that guy back in an instant”.

In power, Bush Jr might have represented a politics with which I had little sympathy but, well, at least he wasn’t like the current guy.

I had similar feelings last week when Prime Minister Theresa May faced a motion of no confidence from hardline Eurosceptics – the new generation of what a former PM described as his party’s “bastards” – determined to bring her down and replace her with someone devoted to their cause.

May is, by some margin, the worst prime minister in living memory. She’s a poor communicator, a terrible strategist, and – policy-wise – has frequently displayed the sort of “nasty party” colours she once warned colleagues against showing.

But at least she wasn’t one of the other guys. At least she wasn’t Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg or David Davis or any of the other charlatans in the Tory party who want the hardest possible Brexit, regardless of the damage – economic and constitutional – that such circumstances might wreak upon the United Kingdom. I’m fairly confident this was the thinking behind the decisions of at least some of those Tory MPs who rallied around her in the face of a Eurosceptic onslaught. May might not be perfect but, boy, look at the alternatives.

This was not, of course, the first time that May had benefited from not being the other guy. In 2016, when she stood to replace David Cameron, May’s campaign was greatly assisted by her not being Andrea Leadsom, who reckoned the fact she was – unlike her opponent – a mother gave her the edge in the contest.

And so May lives to fight on – at least for a year if she wishes, given that Tory Party rules prohibit another leadership challenge for 12 months – in part not because she is especially good at her job but because she is better than the alternatives.

And she truly is, isn’t she?

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Take one of her tormentors-in-chief, David Davis, for example. Davis appeared on Question Time on Thursday and calmly spoke utter rubbish in defence of his position that a different leader would have secured a better deal from the EU. This delusion – or lie, depending on your stomach for this nonsense – infects the Tory right. The EU would give much more ground if only the Prime Minister was tougher in negotiations. Forget the indisputable fact that the EU’s responsibility is to those states that wish to remain members, they’d roll over and do our bidding if only we believed.

Fending off a question about the possibility of a second referendum as a potential way of moving things forward, Davis warned that after such a vote – which Leave would again win – the EU would give the UK a worse deal than the one, the final one, mark you, currently on the table.

Thus Davis’s position is that the EU would give the UK a better deal now if only the Prime Minister were more forceful, but it would give us a worse one after a second referendum.

Plausible and matey – in a Lexus-driver-at-the-19th-hole kind of way – Davis puts forward a version of reality that makes no sense whatsoever. European leaders have made it perfectly clear that they wish the UK was not leaving the EU and they have been equally explicit about the fact the deal currently on offer is the best – and only one – available.

Yet Davis – a failure as Brexit secretary, let’s not forget – blithely repeats the myth that a tougher PM could have extracted more concessions from those continental sorts. Before he took the coward’s way out and quit his cabinet position, Davis failed to extract these concessions, of course. But that wasn’t his fault, it was the PM’s.

With grubby little men like Davis and Rees-Mogg circling May, is it any wonder she survives, in part, because at least she’s a better option than them?

Labour, too, is held back by the fact that at least May isn’t Jeremy Corbyn. In normal – or what used to pass for normal – circumstances, a government as chaotic as May’s would be trailing the opposition. Corbyn should be on course to certain electoral victory.

Instead, Labour remains stubbornly behind the Conservative Party in opinion poll after opinion poll. The Prime Minister may be dreadful but the alternative offered by the cult of Corbyn seems so much worse.

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And so May retains power, power which she is currently using to direct herself towards parliamentary rejection of the draft departure agreement struck with EU leaders.

There can be no more concessions from Europe and there will be no second referendum to try to move this miserable process forward, she insists.

I wonder, however, whether that position will hold. The Prime Minister might continue to reject a so-called “People’s Vote” but perhaps the time will come when she realises, in these days where the best option is the least bad one, that would be preferable to the No Deal Brexit so many of her colleagues would be happy to inflict on the United Kingdom.