Brexit has not even happened yet and it appears to have claimed its second prime minister. Theresa May had the UK’s exit from the EU to thank for her rapid elevation as prime minister – now she has it to blame for taking her to the brink of departure.
While the details remain vague, May has signalled she will not remain in office for the next stage of the Brexit negotiation, promising to leave if MPs back her deal in a new vote. It goes without saying that this is not what she wanted – as she told MPs on Wednesday night: “I am prepared to leave this job earlier than I intended in order to secure a smooth and orderly Brexit.” But, let’s be clear, her foreshortened reign in No 10 is entirely her own doing.
The prime minister’s entire approach to the Brexit process has been difficult and intransigent, immune to compromise and flexibility. She wasted months sticking to the meaningless line “Brexit means Brexit”, and when some illumination finally came, in her Lancaster House speech in January 2017, it deliberately played up to the Brexiteer side of her party, ignoring the more than 16 million people who voted Remain.
Her strategy of “no deal is better than a bad deal”, together with the Eurosceptic she appointed as Brexit secretary to deliver it, David Davis, set an antagonistic tone with Brussels for the entire negotiation period.
Under her direction, the government had to be dragged to the Commons to agree to a meaningful vote on the final deal. Her decision to call an election in April 2017 was reckless, yes, but also narcissistic – a hubristic attempt to grab more power so she could dictate a Brexit that was a far cry from the unifying message she set out when she stood in Downing Street on her first day as prime minister in July 2016.
May’s 2017 election campaign was autocratic – warming to the theme of that notorious Daily Mail front page that claimed she would “crush the saboteurs”.
And when, as it turned out, she squandered the Tory majority at that election, May should have been humbled by the electorate’s verdict of a hung parliament – which was clearly a vote against a hard Brexit and against her purported stance of being “strong and stable”.
Instead, she ploughed on as if she had won a landslide majority of more than 100. There was no consulting with parliament, no consensus-building. After securing the withdrawal agreement with Brussels last November, the Brexiteer wing of her Conservative Party moved against her and tried to unseat her in a confidence vote – which she went on to win.
At that point, May could have finally freed herself of the Eurosceptic shackles and reached across the House of Commons for a consensus around her deal, or a version that would win a broad support. Instead she refused to budge from her position that MPs had to either back her deal or face a no deal.
Despite that deal being defeated twice in the Commons, and despite her government being held in contempt of parliament, the prime minister refused to make concessions. Incredibly, yesterday’s debate on indicative votes, which May’s government even tried to block at the 11th hour, was the first opportunity the House of Commons had had to have an open debate on what Brexit actually means, 1,006 days after the UK voted to leave the EU.
May has refused to countenance at any stage that she is to blame for closing the deal on Brexit – that was clear in her statement in Downing Street last week in which she pitted MPs against the public, and again last weekend when she refused to set out a timetable for her own departure after being asked by Brexiteers at Chequers.
This week, a minister suggested that the way May has been hounded over her own exit was misogynistic, and that a male prime minister would not be bundled out of office by his MPs. I don’t think that’s true. Yes, Margaret Thatcher was forced to quit after pressure from her ministers, but she had refused to listen and be flexible – much like her woman PM successor.
Male premiers have also been pursued by their own side: Tony Blair by Gordon Brown; Gordon Brown by Blairite ministers; David Cameron, effectively, by the Eurosceptic wing of his party. What may be the case is that both May and Thatcher – women rising to the top of the male-dominated world of politics – have become more resistant to change and compromise because those may be seen as “female” traits. Perhaps they have felt they have something to prove.
However, it is the case that a more politically astute politician, whether male or female, would have done a better job at getting the UK to the door of Brexit than Theresa May.
Political leadership is about strength and stability – but it is also about being nimble and seeking consensus, particularly when your central mission is in trouble. May told her MPs at the 1922 committee last night: “I have clearly heard the mood, I won’t stand in the way.” Her failure to read the mood until now has ultimately been her downfall.
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