IT HAD COME billed as one of the greatest love stories never told. In previous interviews, Theresa May had spoken of Shinzō Abe, the Japanese prime minister, as her Rock. The one world leader who set her pulse racing. The man who truly got her. It was the relationship that transcended language barriers. Then again, May has always been more at home with silence.
Love comes in many forms. Even near-indifference. After a day spent chatting to Abe about a new robotics deal – her software was seriously out of date – and visiting Twickenham, May looked as if she was all loved out. She managed a quick smile as she and Abe walked into the Downing Street side room for their joint press conference, but her eyes looked dead. The prime minister is currently running on little more than fumes. Almost as if the vote on Tuesday can’t come soon enough. It’s the waiting for inevitable defeat that’s destroying her from the inside.
May got things rolling with a quick monotone roundup that was almost intelligible, as the voice of the simultaneous Japanese translator was about as loud as hers. She had very much enjoyed her day out, she mumbled in a manner that suggested the whole thing had been rather a chore.
On another day it might have been fun, but after the week she’d had the last thing she needed was the enforced intimacy of a few hours not speaking to Abe. She kept her head down, staring at her script. They’d talked a bit about how everything was going to be fine after Brexit, how the British economy was going to get a huge boost from the ending of the Japanese ban on British meat and how she was going to send out a Van Gogh on loan. And that was about it. She ended as arbitrarily as she had begun.
Abe had looked on rather awkwardly while May spoke. He had been expecting something more engaged and appeared wrong-footed by the flatness of the British prime minister’s delivery. He wasn’t used to a woman who chose to define herself by her absence rather than her presence. Maybe not even Japan’s most advanced artificial intelligence could help.
To compensate, Abe became overanimated. There were no two countries closer than Britain and Japan. None. We were like brothers. And not even Brexit could divide us. May had negotiated the very best of the bad Brexit deals possible and he fervently hoped that it would be accepted because a no-deal Brexit was unimaginable. Not just to Japan but to the whole world.
It was just as well that May had by now tuned out and was almost catatonic, as this outright dismissal of one of her last remaining bargaining chips had not been part of the Downing Street playbook. Instead, she stood hunched and impassive, with only the occasional flash of anger betraying she was in fact still sentient. It was hard to know if the anger was directed at Abe or whether she was merely reliving some of the many indignities that had been heaped on her in the past few days.
Come the questions from the media, May went back on to autopilot. She ignored Abe’s appeal to take no-deal off the table and doubled down on her own doomed Brexit deal. It was her deal, it was the only deal, we wouldn’t be joining the customs union, there was no plan B and she was going to get it through parliament. Even though she definitely wasn’t. You almost had to admire her resilience and refusal to accept the inevitable. She would outlive the last cockroach in a nuclear wasteland.
After taking a quick sideswipe at John Bercow over his decision to allow the Dominic Grieve amendment the day before – the Speaker is only one of many for whom she has now reserved a special place in hell – May tried to wrap the whole thing up by cutting short a British journalist who was about to ask Abe another awkward question about a no-deal Brexit. She’d had enough humiliation for another day.
Abe looked surprised to be denied the chance to speak and gamely had a stab at giving his opinion on a British legal aid case that had nothing to do with Japan before May butted in. The show was over. The two prime ministers walked away in silence. Just as they had arrived. May’s public hell was over. Now she was merely left to her private hell. (John Crace)
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