Leader: The epic failure of Theresa May

The Prime Minister devoted the entire machinery of government to the task of Brexit – and still endured a momentous defeat.

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In the distant summer of 2016, when Theresa May entered Downing Street, she aspired to be a transformative prime minister in the mould of Margaret Thatcher and Clement Attlee. Britain’s economy and society, she vowed, would be renewed and its “burning injustices” rectified.

Mrs May has now made history – but not in the manner she intended. The rejection of her Brexit agreement by an unprecedented margin of 230 votes was a profoundly humiliating outcome. In an attempt to avoid a loss, Mrs May had delayed the vote by a month and doled out political honours to Conservative backbenchers. She devoted the entire machinery of government to the task of Brexit – and still endured a momentous defeat.

In normal circumstances, Mrs May would have immediately resigned as prime minister. Only the disdain of Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party keeps her in place for now.

Mrs May can reasonably contend that she would not have started from here. She did not choose to hold the EU referendum – that was the hubristic folly of David Cameron – and she campaigned for Remain (albeit with marked reluctance). Yet through a succession of avoidable errors and botched negotiating tactics, the Prime Minister sowed her own fate.

Rather than healing the divisions created by the Brexit referendum, Mrs May exacerbated them. Her refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights cast the UK as a callous state and created needless anxiety. Like her predecessor Mr Cameron, Mrs May pandered to her party’s hard right, rather than confronting it. “No deal is better than a bad deal,” she declared in her Lancaster House speech in January 2017, thus legitimising a destructive course that she never favoured. She also ignored the interests of Remain-voting Scotland.

Like Mr Cameron’s belated support for the EU, the Prime Minister’s new insistence that “a bad deal is better than no deal” now rings hollow. And she conflated the national interest with her own narrow personal interest and desire to endure as prime minister.

Mrs May’s decision to respect the 2016 referendum result was reasonable. But by invoking Article 50 recklessly early in March 2017, she further weakened her position. To the EU’s incredulity, Article 50 was triggered before the cabinet had even agreed a negotiating stance. Not until July 2018, more than a year later, did Mrs May finally try – and fail – to unify her government through the “Chequers plan”.

In advance of this, the Prime Minister squandered vital negotiating time by calling a snap general election. There was logic to her decision: the slight majority of 12 seats she inherited from Mr Cameron was always vulnerable. Mrs May’s mistake was to preside over the most dismal election campaign in modern history, resulting in the deserved loss of her parliamentary majority. The Prime Minister’s authority has never recovered from this reversal.

But Mrs May could have used this crisis as an opportunity. Having secured no mandate for her Brexit policy, she could have reached out to parliament and sought to forge a cross-party consensus with opposition parties. Instead, she bought the support of the reactionary DUP and indulged her party’s Europhobes.

Only after a historic defeat, and at this perilously late hour, has Mrs May finally pledged to pursue a cross-party approach. But it is too late for her, already too late. 

Brexit has absorbed the energy and resources that should have been devoted to democratic renewal as well as the social injustice that Mrs May once piously spoke of: the longest period of wage stagnation since the Napoleonic Wars, enfeebled public services, crumbling infrastructure, record levels of in-work poverty, and a dismaying rise in rough sleeping.

Even should parliament eventually pass a Brexit withdrawal deal, it will then confront the forbidding task of negotiating a new European settlement. Over the wasted years, and decades, that follow, the United Kingdom will have cause to rue the epic failure of Theresa May.

This article appears in the 18 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit trapped Britain