The main constitutional, indeed psychological function of any British prime minister is to take the blame when things go wrong.
Theresa May supposes, no doubt, that her purpose is to bring the Brexit negotiations to a successful conclusion and, from her point of view, life would be insupportable if she did not believe there was still some prospect of seeing her blueprint passed by parliament. But the rest of us will need someone to hold responsible if our — perhaps rather unrealistic — definitions of a successful Brexit are not met, and that is where she will come into her own.
Among Remainers, David Cameron takes the blame for calling the EU referendum, and Boris Johnson for swinging the result towards Leave. But neither Mr Cameron nor Mr Johnson has been in charge of the government’s less than inspiring attempts over the past two years to give effect to the referendum verdict. That is Mrs May’s role. A year into the task, she invited the British people to turn her into an elected dictator, with the evident intention of being able to face down any opposition she might encounter from her own backbenchers. The British people declined her invitation. They instead took away her parliamentary majority and made her dependent on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists.
So she faces the awkward task of reaching a settlement that is acceptable to both Jacob Rees-Mogg and Dominic Grieve, on opposite sides of the Conservative party’s Brexit divide; both Boris Johnson and Jo Johnson in that loyal, but divided, clan; and both Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, and Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister. She must also, of course, secure the support of other European leaders and maintain that of Brussels.
Since the moment of the younger Johnson’s resignation from the government, it had looked less and less likely that people will decide the May compromise is the least bad alternative and so will have to be accepted. She has ended up pleasing almost no one, has lost her Brexit secretary and another cabinet minister and support on the backbenches is ebbing away. One notes the efforts of even those Leave cabinet ministers who remain in place to sidle away from being associated with the deal on the table.
These thoughts are prompted by an attempt by Alistair Lexden, official historian of the Conservative party, to rehabilitate Neville Chamberlain.
It is true, as Lord Lexden says in his new pamphlet, that in the 1920s Chamberlain had “an immensely productive five-year term at the Ministry of Health, at that time responsible for all social services apart from education”. It is also true that, in the 1930s, he did much to strengthen Britain’s defences, not least by “picking the winners of the future such as fighter aircraft and radar which saved us in 1940”.
And Chamberlain’s policy of attempting to appease Hitler was immensely popular. What, after all, was the alternative? Anything seemed better than plunging the country into another terrible war, for which neither we nor our allies were prepared. How people cheered the prime minister when he returned in September 1938 from Munich, and how they wanted to believe his promises of peace.
But by May 1940 appeasement had all too plainly failed, someone had to answer for that and the only person who could do so was Chamberlain.
In the 18th century, the prime minister took the blame on behalf of the monarch, so Lord North — an outstanding parliamentarian and also, which is rarer at that level in politics, a very nice man — took responsibility, rather than George III, for losing the American colonies.
In more recent times, the role of the prime minister is to take the blame on behalf of the people, and also on behalf of colleagues. So Anthony Eden was forced to take pretty much the entire burden for the Suez debacle in 1956, and Tony Blair for the Iraq war in 2003. That is how the British constitution provides democratic accountability. The prime minister very often ends up as the scapegoat for a policy that commanded widespread acceptance until it ended in humiliating disappointment, and Mrs May is unlikely to avoid that fate.
The writer’s most recent book is about British prime ministers