Ben Lowry: The prime minister is a unionist who reluctantly felt she had to agree to damage the Union

A series of incidents last year were revealing as to the outgoing prime minister’s character.

By The Newsroom
Saturday, 25th May 2019, 1:11 am
Prime Minister Theresa May having lunch with farmers at Fairview Farm in Bangor, Northern Ireland during a tour of the four nations of the UK, on March 29, 2018. This was one of a number of dates when Ben Lowry interviewed her for the News Letter: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Prime Minister Theresa May having lunch with farmers at Fairview Farm in Bangor, Northern Ireland during a tour of the four nations of the UK, on March 29, 2018. This was one of a number of dates when Ben Lowry interviewed her for the News Letter: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

It began when Theresa May danced on a visit to Africa, and was mildly ridiculed for doing so.

Aware of this ridicule, the Conservative Party leader tried to make light of it some weeks later. In her keynote Tory conference speech, she gamely came on to the stage dancing.

She was mocking herself.

That cannot have been an easy thing to do for a woman who is quite stiff, but she did it, in good faith.

Then, a while after that, the European Commission president, Jean-Paul Juncker opened an address to an audience by standing at the podium, and jigging his arms in an obvious impersonation of her dancing, then grinned at his own mockery of her.

This was met with laughter and applause.

In other words, Mrs May who never, to my knowledge, has mocked another politician in public, chose to make fun of herself, teased herself, as a way of acknowledging that embarrassing dancing incident in Africa.

And, in contrast, Mr Juncker, seemingly delighted with his own wit, and laughing in self-praise at his own good humour, came on stage and impersonated her.

His rudeness and cruelty was not met by his audience with the silence it deserved, but instead was seen as hilarious.

So while Mrs May good humouredly mocked herself, Mr Juncker, whose occasional appalling behaviour could justifiably attract a degree of mockery, did not mock himself (and as far as I am aware has never done) but instead he put the boot into her.

It is little wonder then that some months later Mrs May, under huge personal strain as she navigated one of the most difficult premierships since World War Two, was caught on camera angrily confronting Mr Juncker in Brussels at another event.

We can’t know for sure what was said in that frosty exchange but lip readers believe she was confronting him for calling her nebulous.

Mrs May was then a woman at breaking point, probably under greater strain than most political leaders have experienced in their own careers — which is saying something, because most political leaders have turbulent working lives.

Not long after Mrs May became prime minister in 2016, I wrote a column about her that has not aged well, in which I said that she seemed to be the right person for the moment.

Yet her incumbency in Downing Street has not been a success. As Stephen Farry of the Alliance Party observed yesterday, dignity and courtesy while in office, of the variety to which I refer above, were insufficient qualities at this critical time in history.

One thing that had impressed me back in 2016 was that she had held down the supremely difficult job of being Home Office cabinet minister for longer than any other recent incumbent of that post.

Another apparent quality was that she was older than two of her immediate predecessors in Downing Street, Tony Blair and David Cameron, and less concerned than they were with being popular and pandering to younger voters.

In the event, the qualities that worked for her as home secretary, including having a tightly controlled and centralised approach to policy, did not transfer well to the much wider responsibilities of being prime minister.

I have interviewed Mrs May five times over the years, and missed a further sixth interview with her.

Four of the interviews were encounters in which I was allowed only two questions (on one occasion just a single query), alongside other press: at a farm in Bangor, at Stormont House, at Queen’s University, and at the Allstate headquarters in Belfast.

Most of those exchanges were dominated by Brexit, and were so brief as to shed little light on her qualities as a PM. Generally she gave long, anodyne answers, in which she said very little.

But prior to those interviews, I had had a longer exchange with Mrs May at the Europa Hotel in Belfast, during the 2010 election, at which I asked her about welfare reform.

I was impressed with her grasp of the issue. She struck me as a particular type of highly educated, thoughtful Conservative MP that has long been dominant in that party (but might be less so in the future, now that it is lurching to the right): generally moderate, always polite, very bright and almost invariably Oxbridge educated.

Dominic Grieve, Ken Clarke and Edward Garnier are other recent examples of that sort of Tory.

I was disappointed therefore not to get to interview Mrs May in June 2016, when, days before the EU referendum, I got a call saying that she was coming in the next morning and I could interview her in Bangor.

I had made a point of interviewing everyone of note who came into Northern Ireland for the referendum: Boris Johnson, his dad Stanley (then opposed to his son’s pro Brexit stance), Theresa Villiers, David Cameron, Lord Mandelson, Dan Hannan, Alan Johnson, George Osborne and others.

I asked all of them about the border, and whether they were concerned that Brexit might pose a threat to the Union.

However, the morning that Mrs May flew in I had a long-standing meeting and I reluctantly relinquished the opportunity to interview her, thinking: ‘Oh, well, she is only home secretary’.

You wonder what she would have said in response to those questions, given that she not only became prime minister, but the Irish border became, and remains, the biggest stumbling block to Brexit.

I have no doubt that she is as much a unionist as she says, but she has come to the conclusion that the Withdrawal Agreement, which does significant damage to the Union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, will do less damage than any other outcome, including No Deal.

She is a person who has tried to implement a Brexit in which she did not believe, which is indicative of her integrity.

Far from clinging to office, as some people claim, it seems clear to me that she felt, first, that she had a duty to implement the public vote, and then, in 2017, resolve a mess that she created, when she lost the snap general election she called.

Having said that, ultimately she proved to be weak, towards both the EU and the Irish. For those reasons, among others, she had to go.

But the problem that pertained in 2016 still pertains: it is hard to see any future Tory leader who has the sobriety, intelligence and wisdom of Mrs May, but also the combination of toughness and charm that the UK needs so badly now.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor