What does Theresa May speak to the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night, when all her life seems shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her (to filch some Tolkien lines from The Lord of the Rings)?
She lost a Conservative majority in the 2017 general election, and Tory backbenchers destroyed her Withdrawal Agreement deal, voting it down three times.
Boris Johnson won a whacking majority in the 2019 election, and Conservative backbenchers voted through his Withdrawal Agreement – plus the trade deal that some thought he didn’t want or wouldn’t get.
This might be easier to come to terms with were the Prime Minister, as she is, a conventional politician: marinated in the ways of the Conservative Party since youth; ferociously hard-working; disinclined to punt ideas off the top of her head; economical with jokes.
She believed that he had behaved honourably in the 2016 leadership election, which helps to explain why she didn’t offer Michael Gove a seat in her first Cabinet, but appointed Johnson as Foreign Secretary that summer.
By the autumn of that year, she was opening the Conservative Conference as follows: “When we came to Birmingham this week, some big questions were hanging in the air.”
“Do we have a plan for Brexit? We do…Can Boris Johnson stay on message for a full four days?” Like some of her other lighter moments, this one was just a bit on the edgy side. (Remember her trolling of George Osborne by donning a hard hat at an awards ceremony.)
Not to put too fine a point in it, she must see her successor as unreliable, slapdash, without a Party activist record, not across the detail, careless with truth and possessed of a private life of which it is hard to believe she approves.
We suspect that all that alone might not have lured her on to the pages of the Daily Mail yesterday to take some pot-shots at Johnson. But that the temptation to fire some off at Donald Trump simultaneously proved impossible to resist.
If Johnson exasperates her sense of tidy conduct, the former President will have maddened it. Clock her expression when quizzed by Sophy Ridge over the former President’s remark about grabbing women “by the pussy”.
Women are from Venus, men are from Mars, and Trump is an erratic Jupiter, unleashing chaos as he crashes unrestrained around the universe. May will found him not only alarming but bewildering – as when he advised her, apparently, to sue the European Union.
It will have been a bit like putting a less incisive Miss Marple in the same room as a demented Howard Roark: the former President does things that are simply not done.
May’s recent conduct has seen her compared to Edward Heath, another former Prime Minister who stayed on in the Commons after losing office.
But if Heath’s interventions had an unmissable major theme – Europe! – it is hard to make sense of May’s. The gambit of threatening to break international law was a Dominic Cummings-era classic. But he’s gone now, and life moves on.
In the proposed 0.7 per cent aid cut May has, as last year with housing, touched on a vulnerable issue for Johnson. The latter intervention was straightforward – linked to her long sensitivity to the local impact of new housing proposals in Maidenhead.
She is less associated with the 0.7 per cent, and one source told ConHome yesterday that, during the run-up to the 2017 election, a cut in the rate was considered.
It’s sometimes said, that of recent Prime Ministers, only May could be imagined, in a parallel universe, as a Permanent Secretary. There was a smack of that in the relief with which she wrote about the arrival, in the form of Joe Biden, of a more conventional politics.
The Prime Minister will clearly have backbench problems in seeking to cut the 0.7 per cent – as with so much else – but we wonder how much difference May’s discontent will make.
Margaret Thatcher left a dispossessed band of supporters behind her when she quit the Commons. John Major had a swathe of former Ministers who felt that he had been disgracefully treated by the Eurosceptics of the day.
Our sense is that May and David Cameron are less of a force because of the sheer scale and pace of events during the past five years or so: the last election not only saw Brexit Getting Done, but a big changing of the guard within the Parliamentary Party
May will fight on for a legacy other than frustration and defeat: part of it from the flurry of decisions during her last days in office, including the net zero emissions target by 2050. (One of her early decisions as Prime Minister was to scrap the Climate Change Department.)
But if Heath had a song to sing about Europe, it isn’t clear what hers will be: if it is to be Governing Morally, she will attract counter-fire, since former Home Secretaries are always vulnerable to charges of having acted meanly and harshly – an unfair judgement in our view.
“In this world there is no room for mature compromise. Indeed, compromise is seen as a dirty word. In fact, the opposite is true,” she wrote yesterday.
Maybe that sensibility will become fashionable again here in Britain in the future. But we close here in the present with a memento of the past: Carla Millar’s illustration, mischievously commissioned by us, of Trump and May as the stars of Gone With The Wind.