Even the best of their generation almost never find the right stepping stones to Number 10. Those who do are utterly aware that all political careers end in failure: that the more you use your power, the more it eventually gets used up. Only Theresa May seems to have taken this rule of politics as a kind of law of thermodynamics – calculating that if she never actually exercised power or made tough decisions, she'd never have to leave Whitehall. Well, it worked for a while.
When she stood on the steps of Number 10 on a balmy July evening three years ago, giving her first speech as Prime Minister, May put her finger on something. Brexit had blown the camouflage off an issue that had been festering for a decade. From now on, the key challenge for any government would be to reconcile the left-behinds with globalisation’s winners.
It was why, for the first year of her Premiership, we had the "Just About Managings". The little guys who bore the scars of the Crash on their back, but never ticked the right boxes for the welfare state. Classic Tory swing voters – the Essex Man types who Margaret Thatcher courted so successfully. What can Essex Person look back on from three years of May? A small rise in the income tax threshold. No wonder they’ll be weighing the Brexit Party votes in Basildon come this weekend.
The one time May did try to think long-term, on social care, she un-thought days later. That manifesto pledge was far-sighted and progressive – billing the richest the most, while making sure no one was left destitute. But as the heat rose, May did her famous U-Turn – as close to a Shakespearian moment of downfall as she got. That was the first time we heard her mantra: "Nothing has changed" – a phrase that is now her epitaph. It was the moment when the idea of the Maybot became common currency: a comical Terminator, keeping on keeping on, despite the shrill insistence of reality itself.
Once the election had capsized her momentum, entire years seemed to swim by with barely a thought to those JAMs she used to care so much about. Occasionally, the conscience would prick, normally in a kind of alcoholic daze, whenever she hit a personal rock bottom in the polls.
In late 2017, after a particularly dismal run, May told her party conference she would be “personally taking charge” of the housing crisis. Here, at last, was a devout purpose for this devout woman. A story to tell. A uniting mission that would see off Labour’s attack lines on the generational divide, the class divide and the stagnant economy in one swoop.
The result? In 2018, housebuilding rates stayed perfectly flat when compared to the previous year. Can anyone recall a single picture of May in hi-vis? Like a New Year’s resolution involving lycra, the PM just didn’t get round to it.
May’s initial diagnosis was still accurate, but it seemed impossible for her to imagine how the lives of ordinary people have shifted against a background of technology and accelerating capitalisation. Despite those fine words about the JAMs, there has never been a real debate in government about the dignity of work – the crisis we are still heading towards, in an era of the precariat, the gig economy, of under-employment replacing unemployment as the key metric of economic wellbeing. Precisely why Corbyn still bobs along in the polls.
One of the reasons that winkling her out of Downing Street has been like stabbing at an oyster with a compass is that she has never wished to face her gallows without a legacy. So the impasse has only deepened. Instead, Parliament has been allowed to grind to a halt under the Brexit trench war. The few bills that have received Royal assent this year include such humdingers as: the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Act, the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Act and the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act.
Coming out of Downing Street, nearly three years on, the PM’s list of achievements was noticeably threadbare. More money for mental health on the NHS? No PM in recent decades has given less money to the NHS than their predecessor did. In her farewell speech, when she talked about "ending the postcode lottery" for victims of domestic abuse, she was talking about legislation that is still only in draft form – such was the scramble to find something-anything to stuff in the legacy box.
A managerialist who can’t even manage is no good at all. It speaks volumes that the Tories are now headhunting for a PM who can talk in ideology – who can take on Corbyn in the way that Michael Gove roasted him before a previous Meaningful Vote. Liz Truss is no one's idea of a good time, but as she’s hawked her wares around the leadership race in recent weeks it’s been bracing to hear genuinely conservative, neo-liberal ideas on the economy.
As the Brexit wickets tumbled, we learned to marvel at May’s ongoing Terminator act. But in truth it didn’t disguise a steely mind so much as a rigid one, a temperament that had begun to insist that reality was to blame.
The casual anecdotes are jaw-dropping. Here was a woman who, when Andrea Leadsom phoned her up to concede in the 2016 contest – effectively making her PM – failed to tell her advisors that the conversation had even taken place for another half an hour.
Ministers would complain that nothing that landed on her in-tray ever left it – policy proposals would be bogged down in requests for furthers details. Micromanaging is just about possible in the Home Office; across the whole of Whitehall, it’s a recipe for paralysis. Only Michael Gove seems to have been able to freelance his way around the problem – racking up as the most interventionist Environment minister in decades, from plastic straws to solar panels.
In the great sweep of history, most Prime Ministers are not remembered. And those who are can choose maybe one headline. Neville Chamberlain had the Holidays With Pay Act, and the Factories Act, both of which revolutionised life for the working man, the former of which invented British seaside culture as we knew it.
But in the end, history’s book writes only one word: "Appeasement". Our PM always knew she was also in the crosshairs of capital-H history. Her tragedy is that she forgot about the passing lives of those who only exist in the eaves of History.
The only surprise is that her epitaph may not even be “Brexit” – it may be the demise of a 300-year-old political party as the dominant force of government.