This opinion piece originally featured in the Guardian.
It pains me to say it but Theresa May is right. Who would have thought that the Maybot, who parroted meaningless platitudes, such as “Brexit means Brexit” and “strong and stable”, could think outside the box. But her analysis, in today’s Daily Mail, of Boris Johnson having vacated Britain’s leadership role on the world stage for threatening international law-breaking and slashing the UK’s international aid contribution is spot on.
In normal times, the direct criticism of a PM by their predecessor would be a huge story. But these are not ordinary times; and with Biden’s inauguration and the UK’s rocketing Covid death toll passing 100,000, May must now regret being the first to roll out the red carpet for Trump – a sign of our Brexit-induced desperation for trade deals. She should have been holding him to account, when she was holding his hand.
Johnson’s laziness on world affairs made him by common consensus the worst foreign secretary of modern times. His multiple coronavirus missteps mean he’s vying for the equivalent title as prime minister. May gave Johnson his first cabinet job to try to keep him in the tent. Maybe she should have literally told him: FO.
May, the goody two shoes who professed that the naughtiest thing she’d ever done was running through a field of wheat, has become a viral mutant strain of Tory: sticking the knife into Gove and the PM from the backbenches, schooling them on what’s what, and creating instantly meme-able images of facial expressions of incredulity at the absurdities they spout.
This will be seen as sour grapes. Let’s not forget Boris Johnson was serially unkind about May after he flounced out of her cabinet and plotted replacing her full-time – so she is returning the favour. He likened her EU withdrawal deal, which would’ve been a whole lot softer than the nasty bump of his hard Brexit he’s negotiated, to strapping on “a suicide vest”. She now is lobbing grenades his way, but not without justification.
Committing 0.7% of GDP to international development was truly “world-beating”, unlike a track-and trace-system that cost £22bn. Chopping that down to 0.5% on the pretext of depleted Covid finances at a time when action in an unequal world is needed to combat the virus is morally wrong and practically misguided. The vicar’s daughter, with harvest festivals and church collection tins in her DNA, knows that. The current occupant of No 10 has bleated to friends that he is hard-up with a new baby, despite being on a six-figure salary a when people are dying and losing their jobs, and kids are being served up meagre fractions of carrots in school meal packages. His wears his principles thin, as the only belief Boris Johnson holds dear is the advancement of Boris Johnson.
At the height of the Brexit talks I found myself in a face off with May at No 10. I can’t say I warmed to her: she’s not a chummy type. Maybot 2.0, though, is turning into a latterday Edward Heath. He was nicknamed the Incredible Sulk for his post-PM backbench broadsides throughout Thatcher’s premiership right up to the Blair era. This life after political death is the opposite trajectory of, say, Blair, himself reborn as a bronzed millionaire whose occasional forays into public life still have an effect: the spacing out of Covid vaccine doses for the over-80s is largely attributed to his Today programme intervention. David Cameron similarly wasted no time in exiting from public view, stepping down as an MP soon after the massive miscalculation of the referendum to hide in a designer shed and write his memoirs – now available secondhand in hardcover for a fiver on Amazon.
Johnson’s purge of Europhiles from the Commons, putting old timers such as Kenneth Clarke and once-promising whippersnappers including Rory Stewart out to grass, means that he presides over a cabinet of sycophants, and May is one of the few Tories left to speak out.
I used to say Theresa May might be a woman, but she ain’t no sister. However, with a Tory majority of 80, we in the opposition need all the allies we can get.