Theresa May’s Successor May Be Just as Doomed
Whoever takes over will face the same intractable Brexit dilemmas.
LONDON—In announcing Friday that she would resign in two weeks, British Prime Minister Theresa May passed sentence not only on the Conservative Party’s devastating defeat in this week's European Parliament elections—and her own brief but raucous tenure—but on the future of the party itself. Because her successor could well end up as doomed as May was.
LONDON—In announcing Friday that she would resign in two weeks, British Prime Minister Theresa May passed sentence not only on the Conservative Party’s devastating defeat in this week’s European Parliament elections—and her own brief but raucous tenure—but on the future of the party itself. Because her successor could well end up as doomed as May was.
May has left the Conservative Party such a shambles that some of its own leading members despair whether the party can ever recover, with the Tories set to hemorrhage support to the hard-liners of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which favors cutting all formal ties with the European Union and leaving with no deal at all.
Brexit “is like a cancer that’s taken over the party. It’s ripping us apart,” said one former cabinet minister, an opponent of Brexit who resigned in protest at May’s withdrawal agreement. “The party membership are all Brexiteers. The next leader has to be a hard Brexiteer. But it’s totally obvious that nobody is going to get a different deal [from Brussels] to the one that May’s already got.” All of May’s likely successors as Conservative leader and prime minister are promising a new deal with the EU that’s “somehow keeps all the advantages of membership without the pain. … That’s simply undeliverable,” the former minister said. “It’s fantasy unicorns. And when it doesn’t happen, the voters will just crucify us.”
“Brexit broke this prime minister, just like it broke the last one. But it won’t end there. It’ll break the next one too. And it’ll keep on breaking them,” argued Ian Dunt, the editor of the pro-EU news website Politics.co.uk. “There are only two options for the next Tory leader: Either cancel Brexit, which they will not do, or be honest with people about what it entails, which they will not do either. … And it’ll keep on happening, until there is someone brave enough to say the thing that is so glaringly obvious: This is all a terrible mistake.”
May’s departure follows months of bitter recriminations and infighting within her own party over a withdrawal agreement she negotiated with the European Union—a deal that has been defeated in Parliament three times by historic margins thanks to a large rebellion by radical pro-Brexit Conservatives. “I have striven to … honor the result of the EU referendum,” a hoarse, haggard-looking May told reporters outside No. 10 Downing St. on Friday morning, referring to the 2016 vote that backed leaving the EU by a small margin. “I have done everything I can to convince MPs to back the deal. Sadly, I have not been able to do so.”
This week’s elections to the European Parliament—the vote that ultimately sank May’s career—weren’t supposed to even happen. The United Kingdom had been meant to leave the EU on March 29, but with the House of Commons unable to agree to a deal, Brussels allowed a six-month extension, necessitating Britain’s participation in the election of a new European Parliament. That delay has paved the way for a massive protest by voters angry at May’s failure to deliver Brexit. While final results aren’t due out until Sunday, when all EU countries will have voted, Britain’s ruling Conservatives are predicted to slip to just 14 percent, with the official opposition Labour Party at 23 percent and the newly formed Brexit Party at 31 percent, according to a Survation poll for the Daily Mail.
Opinion polls for at least the last year have consistently shown a public shift away from Brexit, with between 52 and 55 percent now favoring remaining in the EU. However, no pro-EU party has so far been able to capture voters’ imagination in the way that the veteran Leaver Farage has mobilized the anger of Brexit backers. Combined, the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats, Change UK (a new party formed of anti-Brexit MPs from both the Labour and Conservative benches), the Greens, and Scottish and Welsh nationalists are set to poll some 29 percent in the European elections. The wild card is Labour, whose party membership is overwhelmingly anti-Brexit but whose leadership has stubbornly refused to come out firmly against leaving the EU.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is “not much different to Boris” Johnson, the favorite to succeed May, said one former senior advisor to ex-Labour premier Tony Blair. “He wants to have his cake and eat it too.” By sitting on the fence over Labour’s Brexit position, Corbyn and his top lieutenants hope to get votes from both Brexiteers and Remainers. “But that clearly isn’t going to happen,” the advisor said. “We’re losing votes on both sides,” with staunch pro-Brexit Labour supporters defecting to Farage’s Brexit Party and Remainers to the Liberal Democrats. Both Lib Dem and Green support surged in recent local council elections, suggesting that Brexit is becoming as much a threat to Labour’s future electoral prospects as it is for the Conservatives. “The only way for Labour to win a general election is to become the anti-Brexit party,” the Blair advisor said. “Corbyn needs to bow to the will of the members and most of our voters.”
With her imminent resignation, May has effectively admitted that her deal with Brussels has no chance of passing the British Parliament. The Conservatives will now have to choose a new leader. In addition to Johnson, the former foreign secretary, front-runners among the party’s mostly older, 120,000-strong membership include Dominic Raab, the former Brexit secretary; Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt; Environment Secretary Michael Gove; and Home Secretary Sajid Javid—all of whom are firm backers of Brexit, though none as radical as Johnson. Johnson has already called for more resolute leadership and a tougher negotiating stance with Brussels—though top EU negotiator Michel Barnier has repeatedly said the withdrawal agreement will not be renegotiated. With support for leaving the EU without a deal running strong among the core of Conservative members, Johnson has insisted that he is ready to lead Britain out of the EU on Oct. 31 “deal or no deal.” According to Johnson, “the way to get a good deal is to prepare for a no deal”—despite warnings from banking and business sectors that crashing out of the EU with no trade agreements in place would cause serious economic pain. In November 2018, Bank of England Gov. Mark Carney warned that the British economy would shrink by between 4.75 percent and 7.75 percent over three years under a no-deal Brexit.
A Johnson premiership is likely to be a short one. The Conservatives are already a minority in Parliament and are reliant on a deal with the tiny Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland—which opposes a no-deal Brexit—for a working majority. Without DUP support, a new Conservative leader could be forced to call an early general election—as Labour has been urging for months. “The decision about who leads the country must be taken in every community, not by the Brexiteer boys’ club in the tea rooms and bars of Westminster,” Dave Prentis, the general secretary of the powerful Labour-backing union Unison, told reporters Friday.
Without a general election, a new Conservative leader will face the exact same problems—and the same impossible parliamentary arithmetic—as May. Too many MPs from both sides of Commons oppose the withdrawal agreement, some because it keeps Britain too close to the EU, others because they believe that staying in would be the best deal of all. In the absence of any breakthrough in Brussels, May’s successor will soon find himself or herself in precisely the same bind.
When announcing the latest six-month extension to the Brexit deadline back in April, Barnier warned Britain not to waste the extra time that Brussels had reluctantly given the U.K. to make its peace with the withdrawal deal. Instead, the Conservatives have triggered at least a month of internecine squabbling as they struggle to unite around a new leader. Labour, too, has failed to find a coherent position on Brexit, refusing even to back a second national referendum on the final deal that some 80 percent of its members demand. “This government has given us … more brutal beheadings than Game of Thrones,” said Tim Roache, the general secretary of the GMB union—but Labour’s ongoing discord has also seen its own fair share of backstabbing and strife. The latest elections for local councils and for the European Parliament have shown a major exodus from Britain’s two mainstream parties, plus a major insurgency by the Brexit Party that threatens to destroy the Conservatives’ chance of forming a majority government for years to come.
“Politics as we know it is pretty comprehensively broken,” said the former minister, shaking his head. “Remainers will never vote for us again. Brexiteers are going with Farage.” As long as Brexit continues to dominate British politics, “I don’t see a way that we can recover. Except wait till the voters call the whole thing off.”
Owen Matthews is the author of Stalin's Children and is based in the United Kingdom. He was Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief from 2006 to 2016. Twitter: @owenmatth
More from Foreign Policy
No, the World Is Not Multipolar
The idea of emerging power centers is popular but wrong—and could lead to serious policy mistakes.
America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want
Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.
America Can’t Stop China’s Rise
And it should stop trying.
The Morality of Ukraine’s War Is Very Murky
The ethical calculations are less clear than you might think.