Terrific May’s model speech
When locked in a corner with demands for the impossible, a need to hold your cards to your chest and a political system that chooses – when it suits it – to call itself transparent, your room for manoeuvre is limited. Thus a typical British understatement to sum up one aspect of Theresa May’s Brexit Lecture. With the cards she could reveal she couldn’t have done better – and this from someone who is desperately sad that UK is leaving EU.
There is plenty of analysis about the substance, so I won’t add to that, but little about the style, and that is worth a comment. The British Prime Minister is not instinctively charismatic. Political rhetoric doesn’t come easily to her because honesty is a high priority on her wish list. But she is no flat-foot when it comes to political finesse. In fact, I thought her handling of Boris Johnson was a political sleight too far. The jury’s still out on that one.
What were Mrs May’s objectives for her Brexit Lecture? Well, first that it should, indeed, be a lecture. No cosy fireside chat, no calming of the fears of those who say Armageddon approaches. Mrs May didn’t set out to win friends with honeyed words. Instead she set out to state her terms and ask “who is with me, who against me?” She had, of course, several audiences to address but one above all was her prime objective. It was you and me.
Her second objective was to be clear. Nothing is more frustrating than a Prime Minister in a muddle. I remember the relief of hearing Churchill after the pain of listening to Chamberlain. Mrs May made her leadership objectives clear from the start and repeated them several times. No matter that parts of what she said sounded repetitious. They were meant to be. “What I say three times is true.” Mrs May is Hunting the Snark* and intends to catch it.
However, Mrs May has a bigger challenge than either of her first two objectives suggest. She has taken on an always risky job at a time of voter madness – babies, bathwater, out with the lot. ‘See if she can keep her hand while it is in a raging furnace’ is the mood of the electorate. It’s what the system is for. Democracy is there to make impossible demands. Mrs May is about surviving. She knows that will be difficult, maybe impossible. She also knows that if she does, it will be because she read correctly the moment to be bold.
Politicians need substance in what they do. Mrs May’s substance is fragile with a relatively small margin in favour of Leave. She has to make the best of that. Leaders need panache, especially when their margin is small. Theresa May is showing as much ‘bold’ as she can find, with as open and optimistic an approach as she can muster.
I still don’t want to leave. But I am impressed enough by the Prime Minister’s determination to say “Go for it, Ma’am. You are a Terrific May.”
Maybe other leaders will learn the importance of ‘bold’ today?
*The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll