2017: The Year Theresa May Lost Everything Except Her Job
John Crace, author of 'I, Maybot', explains how the prime minister managed to survive a car-crash year.
I, Maybot: The Rise and Fall, by John Crace
It wasn't the best of starts to the new year, but in hindsight Theresa May would look back on it as one of the high points. Sure, the Supreme Court might had just ruled against the government by insisting that parliament should have a vote on triggering Article 50, but at least the prime minister had a 20 point lead over Labour in the opinion polls – making her one of the most popular and secure leaders of modern times.
Theresa May wasn't happy about the Supreme Court ruling – the country hadn't voted to take back control from the EU only to allow the British parliament to have a say in how the country was run – but she grudgingly decided to abide by it. She appeared to be even more angry when the Labour party chose to thwart "the will of the people" by voting with the government to trigger Article 50. Logic never was her strong point.
During the Easter break, the prime minister went on a walking holiday with her husband in Snowdonia. On her return she summoned the media to Downing Street to hear her announce she was calling a snap general election. It was in the national interest for her to be given a strong mandate for her negotiations with Brussels.
This came as a shock to everyone. Over the course of the previous nine months Theresa had given seven interviews in which she had categorically stated she wouldn't be calling an election because it wasn't in the national interest. It now appeared what she really meant by "the national interest" was taking advantage of her massive lead in the polls to wipe out any chance of a Labour government for the foreseeable future and to install her as the country's Supreme Leader.
Within days of calling the election, Theresa declared that she wasn't going to take part in any televised debates, because although everyone had said they wanted one she actually knew they didn't. So what she was going to do instead was go round the country having a series of conversations with the public. As most conversations with Theresa are punctuated by painful 20 minute silences, her advisers, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, suggested she might be better off going to speak for five minutes at a time to small groups of Conservative activists instead.
So this was how the early weeks panned out. Theresa would turn up and say "Strong and Stable" over and over again to an audience of 20 people who had been rounded up into the corner of a three-quarters empty hall to give the impression on TV that the place was packed. She would then take a few questions from the media to which she had two stock answers – "Strong and Stable" and "Brexit means Brexit" – and no one was any the wiser.
"She couldn't see for the life of her why everyone was calling her tax on dementia a 'dementia tax' just because it was a tax that targeted people with dementia."
Comparatively late on in the campaign, Nick and Fiona told Theresa they had finished writing her election manifesto and were ready to let her launch it, which she duly did in front of her cabinet and the media at an arts centre in Halifax. It didn't go at all well and within days she was forced to insist that "Nothing has Changed" as she changed pretty much everything. She couldn't see for the life of her why everyone was calling her tax on dementia a "dementia tax" just because it was a tax that targeted people with dementia. Besides which, her manifesto was never meant to be seen as a set of election promises; rather it was just a series of random ideas formed of random sentences.
Despite all this, the Conservatives still held a large lead going in to polling day, with Theresa expecting to gain a 60 to 80 seat majority. The electorate saw things differently. Having been asked to back the prime minister and give her a strong mandate, they instead chose to give her no overall majority. Theresa was devastated and the Tory party were far from impressed. Ordinarily, she would have been forced to go as leader within a week, but these were desperate times. The gene pool of talent within the Tory party was so small, there were no obvious replacements. Besides which, the last thing the Conservatives wanted was another election, as they would probably lose. So her punishment for failure was being forced to stay on as prime minister.
Over the summer Theresa lay low, licking her wounds and hoping no one in her party would launch a leadership bid against her. Come the party conference in October she was ready to reboot herself. Only Maybot 2.0 looked to all intents and purposes much like Maybot 1.0. She was meant to convince the party she had learned from her mistakes, but her apology for her election campaign being too scripted just sounded...too scripted. Then comedian Simon Brodkin made his way to the stage to give Theresa her P45, which she accepted, because deep down that's what she really wanted. Then her voice went into revolt and refused to speak. The nadir was the frog leaping out of her throat and on to the screen behind her where it started knocking off the slogans. Strong and Stable became Rong and Stale.
The autumn was spent trying to persuade the EU to progress the Brexit negotiations to the next phase. This too proved to be a stumbling block. First Boris Johnson pre-empted Theresa's Florence speech in which she was to lay out her vision of a post-Brexit world with an article of his own which pretty much contradicted everything she was going to say. As the cabinet couldn't even agree what it wanted, it was no wonder the EU was in the dark about what Britain was hoping to get from the negotiations.
Then Theresa realised that maybe it had been a mistake to leave David Davis in charge of the negotiations. Having told a select committee that his department had been making in-depth impact assessments on 58 sectors of the economy, the Brexit secretary was forced to admit that the assessments did not actually exist when he was asked to produce them. At which point Theresa headed over to Brussels to take charge of the negotiations. Unfortunately she had forgotten to inform Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP upon which she relied for her majority. She was then forced to tell the EU that she wasn't able to agree to the deal she had come over specially to sign.
Eventually the EU took pity on her and came to her rescue. Better to deal with the fatally wounded Theresa whom they could at least vaguely trust, than risk her being sacked by the Tories and being replaced with someone even more incompetent. Phase Two of the Brexit talks could go ahead. It had taken the best part of a year to conclude what had been meant to be the easy bits of the negotiation, and there was barely a year left to agree the tricky stuff. Theresa was safe for now, but for how long? In January she had appeared unassailable; now she was clinging to her job by her fingertips.
'John Crace's I, Maybot (Faber, £9.99) is out now'