Throughout her two-and-a-half year reign as prime minister, Theresa May has built her brand around her supposed unsinkability. Yet the unprecedented defeat by 230 votes, unheard of for a British prime minister, should have been the moment she acknowledged that her stewardship of Brexit is fatally flawed and tendered her resignation.
The fact that she took straight to the despatch box to make clear she was carrying on as premier – daring Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to table a motion of no confidence in her government and telling MPs she would bring forward a new motion next week – is staggering. Bullish is one way to put it; another is foolish.
It is, of course, entirely in keeping with May’s approach to plough on as though nothing has happened.
When she launched her campaign to lead the Conservative Party, all the way back in June 2016, she claimed she would bring Remainers and Leavers together and end the period of troubling uncertainty as the Brexit process got underway.
And yet, time and again since that day, she has failed to listen to all sides except the Brexiteer wing of her party. By trying to placate them over those two and a half years, she misread the narrow referendum result, which indicated a softer Brexit than the one she pursued. She misread the hung parliament result of the 2017 general election, which should have told her that compromise across the House of Commons was necessary. And, as her Brexit deal has faltered in the Commons, she has misjudged the mood of MPs at every turn.
At that 2016 campaign launch, May made great play of the fact she didn’t engage in gossipy political lunches or spend the evenings in parliament’s bars. This was supposed to be her great strength – she was not part of Westminster’s clique, but always acting in the interests of the country. Yet just as her “strong and stable” mantra became her great weakness during the 2017 election campaign, this unclubbability and deaf ear to the mood of the Commons has become her undoing and shredded her authority.
After postponing the meaningful vote and winning the confidence vote of Tory MPs last month, May should have seized that moment to see off her Brexiteer wing, who account for less than a sixth of the whole House of Commons and are unable to challenge her for another year. It would have given her the room to really reach out to Labour and softer Brexit Tories. There were some token approaches, but nothing to indicate that she would change her Brexit plan to win a consensus in Parliament.
With the clock ticking loudly in the runup to Brexit Day on 29 March, it is extraordinary that the prime minister effectively wasted five weeks – five weeks when she could have closed the deal.
May has always believed her legacy and reputation will be built around what she described in that 2016 campaign launch as “strong leadership and clear sense of direction”. At that dangerous moment last month, when she faced a confidence vote from her own MPs, she echoed that speech when she insisted she would always act in the national interest.
But the national interest is not served when a prime minister cannot take with her the nation – as represented by its members of parliament. The national interest is not served when she is seen to be tactically trying to run down the clock in order to ram-raid through her flawed and unpopular Brexit deal. And the national interest is not served when she asks MPs to choose between that deal and the prospect of economic disaster under a no deal.
May’s legacy is the very turmoil and uncertainty that she promised she would rid the country of, back in June 2016.
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