You don’t know where you are with a Sphinx, that’s sort of the point. With its lion’s haunches, eagle’s wings and human face – the Sphinx compels and confounds. And then, of course, it asks you its riddle. Get it right and you’re on your way, get it wrong and you’ll be devoured on the spot. “If Brexit means Brexit…” she purrs playfully “then what does Brexit mean?”.
According to the diaries of Sir Craig Oliver – rushed from scribbled notes to the Mail on Sunday in record time – David Cameron felt betrayed by Theresa May’s ‘Sphinx-like behaviour’ in the run up to the EU referendum. She ummmed and ahhhed over which side to support and then – even when her mind was apparently made up – she sent mixed messages and refused to throw her full weight into the Remain campaign. Sir Craig, knighted for his services to Cameron and to the Remain campaign in an honours list that jars somewhat with the Government’s professed commitment to ‘payment by results’, puts this down to personal ambition. He believes that Mrs May hedged her bets so that she could prosper no matter what the result – as a reluctant Remainian in the event of Leave or as a loyal(ish) soldier should Cameron have prevailed. Given the seriousness of the matter that was at hand, Sir Craig and a great many of Cameron’s other friends and relations regard this behaviour as not quite cricket. And it is in how wronged they feel by the new Prime Minister that they find the excuse to make trouble for her. Which is a happy coincidence because, as it happens, they were planning on making trouble for her anyway.
But perhaps they are being unkind and unfair on Mrs May, even accepting that her actions during the campaign may have understandably infuriated her supposed allies. After all, one doesn’t really blame the cat for being an idle, selfish sociopath – it is in his nature. Nor is it reasonable to despise the dog for her fawning, needy dependency; again, that is simply how she is made. In the same vein, can one really blame the Sphinx for being Sphinx-like?
Theresa May is made up of three distinct species of Tory – woven together into her very person to create a formidable but unpredictable political animal.
She has the face and head of a moderniser. Many years spent quietly promoting the cause of women and ethnic minority candidates within the party; her stark, brave warning to the Tory grassroots that they looked ‘nasty’ to a country that was leaving them behind; her impassioned plea to the police force that it must act to root out endemic brutality and corruption.
May’s body, though, is a different animal altogether – a cautious, small-c conservative creature. It pads about, weighing each decision scrupulously and acting only when the facts are clear and the odds are stacked; her need for more time to decide on Hinkley Point; her reluctant and loveless embrace of Remain; her continued refusal to outline any concrete plan for honouring the outcome of the referendum.
So far, frankly, so bog standard Cameroon. A head for modernisation but not the gut? That’s the story of the Conservative Party – to one degree or another – for the last decade or more. So what makes May a Sphinx in a way that Cameron wasn’t? It’s the wings. On grammar schools, on austerity, on relations with China and on corporate governance Mrs May has demonstrated that she is capable of sudden and bold breaks with orthodox wisdom. She is prepared to take leaps of faith where her predecessor’s calculation and lack of imagination held him back – she is prepared to throw herself into flights of fancy where Cameron would have let caution tie him down.
So perhaps the frustrations felt by team Cameron over May’s Brexit stance were real but nonetheless misplaced – yes, she was hard to pin down but no, this was not because she was plotting. Rather, it is her nature to hold multiple and finely balanced views in almost equal esteem – coming down in favour of either
the moderniser, conservative or radical position only after much argument (some of it with herself). This characteristic is both the source of the Prime Minister’s strengths and of her potential weaknesses.
On the one hand, Mrs May is like most of us – and is certainly like the Conservative Party. As a would-be tribune of the people her instincts were close to the majority on Europe – finely balanced, reluctant and unenthused. Very few voters are guided or motivated by an overriding political ideology; May’s pragmatic take on each new issue could feel refreshingly normal to the electorate, especially when juxtaposed with Jeremy Corbyn’s singular perspective. And unlike many of her predecessors, May is able to genuinely understand the motives and the hopes of the different wings of her tribe – an empathy that will be vital if she is to govern effectively with her tiny majority and questionable mandate. But there are problems too. A politician with so many competing instincts can end up prone to stasis, unable to come down firmly on the side of a particular course of action. Some have accused May of this already – on Hinkley Point and on Brexit. And an unpredictable decision maker makes it difficult for friends and outriders to make themselves useful. How can those not in May’s most intimate circle preemptively support and reinforce her authority and good judgement when they have no way of predicting which side of her will win-out? Friendly advocacy for May can sometimes feel booby-trapped and, therefore, best left to others.
All of these qualities – these strengths and weaknesses – will be under the microscope in Birmingham next week. Osborne and his motley crew of Jacobites will be watching for weakness and seeking to exploit the contradictions that they believe lie at the heart of May’s programme for government. For ‘Friends of George’ one cannot be both clubbable and a supporter of grammar schools – expect more interventions from the likes of Nicky Morgan on this theme. Meanwhile, the Tory grassroots will be getting to know (or, at least, trying to) a Leader they had no role in electing. Whilst she benefits from a very long time at the top of British politics (for a modern leader, anyway) May has not cultivated the sort of intimacy that many of her predecessors have. Add to this her elevation without election and it is possible that she will enjoy a shorter honeymoon amongst the faithful than is usual – the ties that normally bind are just a little looser. And each and every day the press will be mischievously man-marking her three Brexiteers, looking for any tool that can be used to widen the wedge between Messrs Johnson, Davis and Fox. This will not be a conference free from tension.
But a step back from Birmingham reveals a bigger picture that cannot help but give the Sphinx a moment’s satisfaction and perhaps even a sly smile. Yes she has enemies within her own party – but Labour has now comprehensively handed itself over to a leader with the lowest popularity ratings in the history of British polling. She is in Government and her main rivals are bound to her by patronage and by fear of the alternative. And while she may not have an answer, quite yet, to the question ‘what does Brexit mean?’, the truth is that neither does anybody else.