Theresa May was always going to be the ‘Brexit Prime Minister’, being dealt a challenging political hand. But today her premiership is on life support and her withdrawal policy in tatters. Was this failure inevitable? Maybe not, argues
In a short space of time Theresa May has come to be regarded as one of the most inept Prime Ministers in history, leading one of the most dysfunctional Cabinets of all time. A staggering 36 ministers have resigned over policy during the past 12 months, 117 of her MPs voted against her in a confidence challenge, and four MPs have abandoned the party whip altogether. She has suffered two of the biggest defeats in parliamentary history, been censured by the House of Commons and suffered the indignity of backbenchers seizing control of the agenda. Her handling of Brexit has been characterised by a series of catastrophic misjudgements leaving Britain without a deal that can be confirmed by MPs, and the indignity of pleading to our European partners for an extension to Article 50.
For many in her party, the invitation extended to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to enter into talks over the Brexit deal is unforgivable. It might have been a honey trap, but consistent with so many of her detractors, Ian Duncan Smith accused her of giving ‘legitimacy to a man who… is genuinely not fit to run Britain and will do it damage’.
Considering today’s febrile political environment, all of this might seem inevitable. Theresa May, some say, has done all that any PM possibly could. She was dealt an impossible hand and has tried to do what is best for Britain. The trouble is, this isn’t true. Today’s failings are of May’s own making and things could have been very different.
Cast your mind back to July 2016. The Vote Leave campaign had narrowly won a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, forcing David Cameron to resign as Prime Minister little more than a year winning the general election which had secured the first Tory majority in 23 years. A new prime minister was needed. And having cast around at the incredulity of Boris Johnson, the duplicity of Michael Gove and the naivety of Andrea Leadsom, one figure remained: the only grown up in the room as some said, Theresa May, the longest serving Home Secretary since Henry Matthews in 1892.
Today it is easy to forget just how much goodwill greeted May’s appointment as Prime Minister from across the political spectrum, the media and the UK’s international partners (remember Donald Trump holding her hand when they met at the White House). She inherited Cameron’s majority in the Commons and looked across at the opposition benches to see a Labour party in civil war. The opposition had elected Jeremy Corbyn as leader, an old fashioned reactionary socialist who had never sat on the front bench let alone held office. He survived confidence motions and a full leadership challenge. Rapidly, the mainstream and the talented of Labour’s parliamentary party from Yvette Cooper to Hilary Benn declined to serve or left the Shadow Cabinet, often taking up positions on Commons’ Committees, the distance from their leader palpable.
This was a moment which called for leadership – an opportunity afforded to few prime ministers. At a moment of national crisis, this was the chance to reach out across the Commons over the head of the opposition leader many felt unfit for office, to forge a consensus between her own administration and dutiful Labour MPs, to address the needs of voters who felt ‘left behind’ and had voted leave, to comply with the instructions of the electorate in that referendum but to do so in a way which protected the British economy and international standing. And to enjoy leading her own domestic agenda beyond Brexit. Theresa May failed to do any of this.
And let’s not forget, such was the self-destruction of Labour, that there was serious discussion of May being in power (real power) for a decade. She had few challengers, ineffective opposition, a small but solid majority and a strengthening economy. Despite all this, Theresa May threw it all away through poor leadership, poor judgement and in a general election she said she would not call. The loss of her majority sealed the fate on her premiership. It made her the captive of her own right wing who demanded the hardest of Brexits, made her government dependent on the votes of the DUP – a delicious irony given the later brick wall that is the Northern Ireland backstop – and it made a hero out of Jeremy Corbyn with his supporters.
May’s so-called ‘red lines’ were always going to be impossible to sell-in to the Commons but she stuck rigidly to them, eventually managing to unite both Leave and Remain wings of her party in opposition to her deal. And now when she appeals for Labour votes in the Commons to get her deal agreed, it is not only from a position of weakness but it is also Corbyn himself that she has to talk to.
The position Theresa May and the country finds itself in today was never inevitable. It is the result of a failure of leadership from the very start, leading to a series of political misjudgements. May’s grip on Number 10 is now faltering, but undoubtedly her three years in office have left Britain a weaker and more ungovernable place.