Alexander Fiuza argues that, with the Conservatives lacking an alternative unity candidate, were Theresa May to step down it would harm the UK’s prospects of a successful Brexit.
Much has been said about how unexpected the results of the General Election were. After beginning what was meant to be a Brexit election with a 20-point lead in the polls, Theresa May made a series of mistakes which whittled it down to a 2.4 per cent lead on the day. With May losing her majority, Labour surging, the Scottish National Party squeezed, and the Liberal Democrats stagnant, the Democratic Unionist Party have become unlikely kingmakers – and even this is not proving easy.
Following expectations of a greatly expanded majority for Theresa May to help with the Brexit negotiations, this was a devastating turn of events. Many have called for her to stand down, but this would be ill advised at this crucial juncture.
For a start, while the Conservatives may not have won an overall majority in Parliament, they did win the most seats, as well as the highest proportion of the national vote for the Conservatives since the Thatcher years. The two advisors who shaped May’s campaign are gone, and she has taken responsibility for her failures. As May said to the 1922 Committee: “I’ve got us into the mess and I will get us out of it.”
Contrary to the hype of the Remain remnant, she has not lost a mandate for Brexit. Over 85 per cent of the electorate voted for pro-Brexit parties running on manifestos committed to leaving the Single Market, electing almost 600 MPs from said parties. The Eurosceptic wing of the Conservatives will have a great deal of influence in the new Parliament, buoyed up by fewer Remain MPs having been elected this time.
Since the election, Labour has re-stated its commitment to leaving the Single Market – with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell saying “continued membership of the Single Market would not respect the result of the referendum”. Sure, they say they wish to keep the benefits of the Single Market and Customs Union, as do the Conservatives, and most Brexiteers. This is the whole point of seeking the best Brexit deal for Great Britain!
A few worry the DUP may soften Brexit. This is absurd. On the face of it, they are the only pro-Leave party in Northern Ireland, and they are committed to leaving the Single Market. Their often-quoted desire to maintain a soft border with Ireland is identical to Conservative goals. Nobody wants a hard border with Ireland, with all the chaos and division it would entail. If anything, their influence may help ensure Northern Ireland shares the benefits of Brexit Britain.
So then, while a handful of Conservative Europhiles may be emboldened, Brexit will not be brought low by the new Parliament.
Brexit is also the reason Theresa May must stay on. Article 50 has been triggered, and the 18-month negotiating process has begun. Britain will be leaving the EU in mid-2019 and we need a stable team to negotiate with Brussels, or we risk – as Donald Tusk put it – “no deal because of no negotiations”.
Were Theresa May replaced swiftly it would be possible to progress negotiations in a timely fashion, but this would require a candidate the Conservatives are overwhelmingly united behind. Such a candidate does not exist at the moment. Without one, May going would trigger a full-blown leadership contest which would waste valuable months and leave the country momentarily directionless.
Whoever won the theoretical leadership contest would have no personal mandate, and may in their honeymoon period be tempted to call another snap election, wasting more time and with no guarantee of a better result. By the end of it we could have spent almost half of the negotiation period on internal party bickering – and the only party to benefit from this would be Labour and Jeremy Corbyn, who would, no doubt stir up huge discontent. Moreover, whoever led us would not have May’s months of forging relationships with EU leaders, and they would not have the time to catch up.
So then, while May is not in an ideal position, she must stay on to begin negotiations – and ideally to see them through. She is unlikely to lead the Conservatives into another General Election, but right now the country needs Theresa May to fulfil the promise of her leadership and to Get Britain Out of the EU. If not Theresa May, then who?