Thu 28 January 2021

Otto English on how a Prime Minister who will be remembered only for Brexit still has a chance to guarantee her place in posterity for something else.

In January 1969, after six years as President of the USA, in a tenure dogged by his cack-handed management of the Vietnam War, Lyndon B. Johnson left office. 

Having delivered a valedictory speech in front of the White House, the ex-President and his family boarded Air Force One and flew off into retirement. As the plane climbed, LBJ loosened his tie, opened a bottle of whisky and took out a packet of cigarettes. Johnson had given up his 60-a-day smoking habit a decade earlier after two massive heart attacks but, now – unbound from the responsibilities of power – the former President lit up, to the horror of his entourage.

“What do you think you are doing Daddy? You’re going to kill yourself!” one of his daughters demanded as he drained the contents of his glass and sucked on the cigarette.

“Look – I’m going to be brutally frank here. You’ve been had Britain. We’ve played you for a bunch of Muppets”.

“I’ve raised you girls and I’ve been President,” Johnson rasped “now – it’s my time.”

He was dead within four years. 

When she departs Downing Street next month, it seems improbable that Theresa May will follow LBJ’s example. She doesn’t seem the type to march into the nearest pub, break open a box of 20 Rothmans, order a bottle of spirits and proceed to tell everyone to “f*ck off”. But, if she did, who could really blame her? As with Johnson, her brief time in office has been an unmitigated disaster – and everyone needs to cut loose sometimes.

All Prime Ministers have both eyes on posterity as the day of their departure dawns, and May knows that she will be remembered for one thing – Brexit.

It must weigh on her every waking moment and haunt her dreams, which is probably why she suddenly looks like a woman on a mission.

Over the last few weeks, she has unleashed a string of big promises on everything from housing to emissions to disability. Arriving at the G20 summit in Japan, she even sought to confront Vladimir Putin over the Salisbury ‘Novichok’ attack, demanding that the two FSB ‘hitmen’ be handed over to the UK authorities for questioning. 

“You’ve been conned into thinking that this mad endeavour is deliverable and necessary. That Brexit somehow ‘has to’ happen. It doesn’t”.

All of it is dying-ember politics from a failed leader, desperate to be remembered for something – anything – beyond that one entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations that says: “Brexit means Brexit”.

It doesn’t have to be this way. With a little imagination, May could make her twilight days in office very memorable indeed. So, earlier this week I turned, on her behalf, to Twitter for some suggestions. 

Here are some of the more printable ideas: she could bow out with some moves – either “dancing out of Downing Street in her kitten heels” or “running naked through a field of wheat, draped in an EU flag”. Alternatively, she could block Boris Johnson’s anointment by declaring a General Election or solve the back-stop problem by invading the Republic of Ireland.   

Many fantasized that, as a final act of defiance, she should “revoke Article 50 and walk”. There’s some debate as to whether a PM could unilaterally do that without the endorsement of Parliament, but even so, it would be a bad move. Stopping Brexit like that would likely turn her legacy of chaos into an actual civil war – and who wants that as their epitaph?

But, there is one wholly realistic thing May could do – something epic and extraordinary – that would leave her mark on history. 

She could tell the truth. 

Imagine this. It’s her last day in office and, as the world’s press gathers before her, she throws her notes aside and says:

“Look – I’m going to be brutally frank here. You’ve been had Britain. We’ve played you for a bunch of Muppets. David Cameron called a referendum nobody needed to serve his interests in placating the nostalgic fantasies of some backbench Tory MPs. It all went wrong and now many of you have come to believe that if we leave the EU we’ll be better off. It’s a lot of old bollocks.

“I’ve failed you and I’m really sorry… Goodbye and good luck”.

“You’ve been conned into thinking that this mad endeavour is deliverable and necessary. That Brexit somehow ‘has to’ happen. It doesn’t. All the hard evidence shows that it will make you poorer. So, we’ve been trying to leave the EU without wrecking everything. I’ve failed you and I’m really sorry. I failed on Grenfell and the ‘hostile environment’ too. Goodbye and good luck. You’ll need it. I’m off for a glass of gin.” 

Brutal truth in British politics? Of course, it will never happen. But, hey, allow a guy to dream.

Meet Otto English at this summer’s Byline Festival

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