Theresa May missed her chance to unite the country over Brexit

The Prime Minister cannot appeal for the country to “come back together” having repeatedly divided it. 


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Theresa May is the leader of a divided party and a divided country. In her speech on Brexit later today, she will concede that she has failed to unite them. “We must bring our country back together,” May will say, “taking into account the views of everyone who cares about this issue, from both sides of the debate”.

After a divisive referendum (52-48), it is natural and wise to forge unity. But in her 20 months as prime minister, May has repeatedly failed to do so. As home secretary in the final days of David Cameron’s premiership, she unilaterally blocked a guarantee of EU citizens’ rights (despite polls show public backing for the stance).

Upon entering Downing Street, May adopted one of the hardest Brexit models available (withdrawal from the single market, the customs union and an end to European Court of Justice jurisdiction). Even more damagingly, she made little attempt to reassure Remain MPs and voters that their views would not be disregarded in Brexitannia. She sought to block Britain's sovereign parliament from voting on whether to trigger Article 50 and to deny MPs a “meaningful vote” on the final deal. EU citizens' fate was left uncertain. 

Nor, despite a shift in rhetoric, did May break with austerity in practice. The NHS and other public services, for which the Leave campaign had promised higher spending, were still drained of resources.

At an election that May did not need to call, Remainers took their revenge. When the Conservatives lost their majority, it became not merely desirable but essential for the Prime Minister to seek unity. The referendum provided a mandate for Brexit but the Tories had been denied one for “hard Brexit”.

Yet May acted as if, to coin a phrase, “nothing had changed”. She could have made what one Conservative minister, echoing David Cameron’s 2010 phrase, described to me as a “big, open and comprehensive offer”. Without a majority in parliament, May could have vowed to work with MPs of all parties to achieve a consensus. She instead rushed to cut a deal with the reactionary Democratic Unionist Party and offered no hint of reflection or remorse. Even now, as MPs vow to maintain a customs union, May insists that such a stance would be a “betrayal” of the British people (polls show a majority of voters oppose her).

True, the Prime Minister is in an unenviable position. For fear of regicide, she has been forced to continually appease her party’s Brexiteer wing. But a more nimble and creative prime minister would at least have sought an escape route. Trapped between her party’s demands and those of parliament, May is now left to helplessly plead for unity having only practiced division.

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.