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Theresa May Broke Britain
Her legacy is a mangled party in a mangled Parliament in a badly mangled country.
Brexit made Theresa May, and Brexit broke her, too. Her ascent to power depended on Brexit and was the making of her baked-in ruin. She was an accidental prime minister who leaves office a calamitous one. A historic failure whose time in office will not be recalled with any fondness, even by those closest to her.
Her resignation speech, delivered outside No. 10 Downing St. Friday morning, was a tearful moment during which she attempted to define herself as the victim of circumstances beyond her control. She had done her best, she said, but she had failed. She had sought a Brexit compromise that would deliver on her promises but had been let down by her parliamentary opponents—many of whom are in her own party—for whom compromise is a synonym for defeat.
Even if there were some truth to this, it still represented an unacceptable rewriting of immediate history. To be prime minister is to lead; to lead is to listen and to inspire; to lead and to inspire is to deliver. May failed on all counts. She leaves office denied even the customary consolations of minor accomplishment that traditionally soften the blow of departure. She had one job, and she failed to do it.
That task was, as she so often put it herself, to honor the result of Britain’s referendum on membership of the European Union. Though May voted to remain in the union, she did so without enthusiasm, playing only a negligible role during the referendum campaign itself. Unlike her rivals for the top job—notably Boris Johnson, who, in a piquant irony, is now best-placed to succeed her—May was a blank screen onto which Conservative members of Parliament could project their own ideas of what a Brexit prime minister should be. Her reserve, her lack of a formidable base in the party, her fundamentally unknowable character were redefined as positive attributes: If she had few dedicated followers, she had few inveterate enemies either.
She wanted to be more than the Brexit prime minister. Indeed, her first speech as premier barely mentioned the issue that would dominate—and overwhelm—her time in office. In it, May pledged to be a prime minister for hard-pressed families who were “just managing.”
“When we take the big calls,” she vowed, “we’ll think not of the powerful but you. When we pass new laws, we’ll listen not to the mighty but you. … When it comes to opportunity, we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few. We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.” A government for strivers, not the happy few; a government of blue-collar, reforming conservatism that recognized that the Brexit vote was not just an instruction to leave the EU but also the greatest protest vote British politics had seen since World War II.
Those words and promises, however fine they were, now seem pitifully irrelevant. Brexit consumed May’s government to the exclusion of almost everything else. Even if she were dealt a poor hand, she still played it poorly. It was May who decided to invoke Article 50 and begin the formal process of leaving the EU before the United Kingdom was ready to do so or even had any clear idea as to its objectives. It was May who determined the true meaning of Brexit, drawing so-called red lines from which she would not be shifted but that, instead, imprisoned her in a maze from which there was no exit.
Chief among these was the prime minister’s insistence that leaving the EU meant ending the free movement of people, one of the core foundational principles of the modern European Union. At the same time, May strove to strike a Brexit deal that minimized the economic fallout that would inevitably follow from leaving the EU’s single market. Britain would seek to maintain as many of the things it liked about the EU while resigning its membership of the European club. It required little imagination to see this was an approach unlikely to be looked at favorably in Brussels.
Complicating matters, May’s government lacked parliamentary muscle. She inherited a small majority from David Cameron and, despite having previously ruled out an early election, decided that a fresh start, and a renewed mandate, was necessary. The general election she called in the late spring of 2017 proved a disaster. The Conservatives lost their majority and, with it, May’s ability to control the Brexit process. She was now at the mercy of her own backbenchers, many of whom increasingly looked on her proposals as a betrayal of the true meaning of Brexit.
By now May was in an impossible position. She lacked authority within her own party while also lacking the political imagination—and, perhaps, the emotional intelligence—required to win support from other parts of the House of Commons.
Meanwhile, the full, complex reality of Brexit was becoming ever more painfully apparent. The dream of a quick, win-win departure was revealed to be just that: a dream wholly divorced from reality. Nevertheless, the middle ground of British politics—in which some kind of Brexit compromise might be forged—was becoming smaller and smaller.
“Brexit means Brexit,” May said, as though this solved or clarified anything. She spent months arguing that “no deal is better than a bad deal” and then seemed surprised when many Tory MPs and even more Tory voters took her at her word. The withdrawal agreement she negotiated with the EU was, even its supporters admitted, a suboptimal bargain. That few better ones were available mattered little.
Three times May brought her deal to Parliament, and three times it was denied. Stubbornly, she refused to believe it was dead and as recently as this week still believed that, with some cosmetic modification, it could be brought back for a fourth time. The resoluteness and determination that was once seen as May’s strongest quality—her determination to do her duty, whatever the cost, as she saw it—now seemed delusional. The jig was up, the game over.
She leaves ruins in her wake. On Sunday, the votes for the elections to the European Parliament will be counted, and it seems certain that the Conservatives will suffer a historic defeat. It seems probable that the party will finish, at best, in fourth place. Leave-voting Tories will have deserted the party en masse, flocking to the revived standard carried by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party; others, appalled by the party’s enthusiasm for the hardest of hard Brexits, will have voted for the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats.
The center of British politics has been hollowed out. Opinion polling reveals that “Leave” and “Remain” are now stronger identities than “Tory” or “Labour.” Die-hard Leavers consider May’s deal a betrayal that would leave Britain a “rule-taker” or a “vassal state,” condemned to following some EU rules and lacking the so-called independence promised by the referendum result. Die-hard Remainers, meanwhile, are more convinced than ever that Brexit is a historic mistake that must be overturned, no matter the cost. There is no compromise possible between these positions.
Now the future is murkier than ever. The Conservative Party owns Brexit and has been consumed by it. May’s legacy is a broken party in a broken Parliament in a badly broken country. Her party’s reputation for competence lies in tatters, and the only thing saving it at present is the public’s lack of enthusiasm for a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn.
Theresa May discovered that the only thing worse than not doing Brexit was doing Brexit. She proved to be a sphinx without a riddle, and, despite her promises, she didn’t break the wheel—the wheel broke her.