On Theresa May’s resignation, some of her mistakes and how she was trapped less by her personal flaws than by the structural flaw within Brexit itself, plus the poisonous ‘politics of betrayal’ she’s left as her legacy.




Almost within minutes of launching her ‘bold new offer to MPs’, in the form of the revised Withdrawal Agreement Bill, last Tuesday it was clear that it had failed and that Theresa May was finished. The only question was when, and now we know the answer. She will resign as Party leader on 7 June.

It was a fitting end in that, far from being bold or new, it was yet another tactical gambit to survive of the sort that has characterised her premiership. She wanted, yet again, to buy a little more time, but there was no more time on sale. Again typically, its proposals were convoluted but, on decoding, amounted to little of substance. Worse, what substance there was alienated those on all sides of the debate.

It was also revealing, in that her statement that she had not realised that Brexit would be as hard as it has proved to be goes to the heart of her failure. There’s really no excuse for this. There were countless warnings of the complexity involved and it is inconceivable that her civil servants did not brief her on this from the beginning. It is clear that Sir Ivan Rogers did just that, and was pressured into resignation for his pains.

Insofar as it’s possible to make sense of this naivety, it seems May thought at the outset that Brexit would be like the negotiations she had had with EU whilst Home Secretary. Then, her approach had been to opt out of everything and then opt back in selectively. That could work in the limited – and, within her own party, relatively uncontentious – area of security and policing cooperation, an area, moreover, where the UK has the advantage of significant capabilities, and in the context of being an ongoing member. As a blueprint for Brexit it was woefully inadequate.


May’s core mistake

Her worst mistake – worse, even, than the ill-fated decision to call an election in 2017, and certainly less forgivable – pre-figured in her 2016 conference speech was to line up with the hard Brexiters to insist in the Lancaster House speech that Brexit meant no single market, no customs union and no ECJ in any form. From that decision – taken in consultation with no one except her closest advisers at the time, not even the Cabinet – almost everything that has happened since has flowed.

In particular, it meant, first, that the bitter divisions of the referendum have intensified to the point of a cultural civil war, the manifestations of which (‘Enemies of the People’, ‘Crush the Saboteurs’ etc.) she never repudiated and often stoked. She made no attempt to create a consensual approach to Brexit. For sure, that would have been incredibly difficult, and might not have succeeded. But she did not even try. It was an epic failure of political leadership at the time when the country most needed it.

Secondly, it meant that she was doomed to be accused of betrayal. For she failed to realise that no matter how much red meat the Brexit Ultras were given it would never be enough. They would always want more. Moreover, they would never accept that – as she eventually found out – Brexit wasn’t as easy as they had claimed. It would, at best, be a long, complex process entailing multiple compromises.


The attempt to turn lies into policy

As soon as she began to even slightly acknowledge that – with the Chequers Proposal in July 2018 – they turned on her and ever since then her job has been in peril. In trying to operationalise all the lies they had told, she gave the lie to them. For it is crucial to understand that what became May’s deal was not a ‘compromise’ between hard and soft Brexit. It was (the first step towards) what hard Brexit looks like when put into practice. The Ultras haven’t been asked to compromise but to accept the practical realities of what hard Brexit means. But they have refused to do that and, instead, have doubled down on the lies and insisted that she betrayed them, and that her failure was a lack of true belief.

The latter accusation has a kernel of truth. It is indeed remarkable that for all her determination to deliver hard Brexit May has never evinced any enthusiasm for it, except to the extent that it will end freedom of movement. Notably, she has always refused to say whether, were there to be another referendum, she would vote leave. The implication is that she would not. That is truly peculiar: a Prime Minister enacting a complete resetting of national economic and foreign policy apparently believing that doing so is harmful. But that certainly does not mean that had she been a true believer the practical realities of delivering hard Brexit would have disappeared. On the contrary, precisely the same realities await her successor.

That is going to matter hugely in the coming weeks as the contenders to replace her will be making exactly the pitch that, armed with true commitment to the cause, all obstacles to the sunny uplands will disappear. In particular, the pretence will be that the Irish border backstop can be entirely removed, or substantially truncated, in the Withdrawal Agreement. As Rafael Behr noted in a recent article, “it is remarkable that the whole period of government striving to extricate the UK from the EU has left so little imprint on public debate about what Brexit involves”. Certainly, it has left no imprint at all on the Ultras.


The structural flaw in Brexit

So, in the end, she was left stranded, making a solitary last stand on a hill of her own making. As strident as the most extreme Brexiters about ‘the will of the people’, and implementing precisely what they had called for, she treated remainers with contempt and entrenched their opposition to the destruction that was being wrought on the country. But the Brexiters reviled her as ‘Theresa the Remainer’ even so.

To an extent her travails have been caused by her now well-known personal flaws: rigid, narrow, stubborn, unimaginative, tetchy, lacking all social skills and most intellectual ones.

“To an extent her travails have been caused by her now well-known personal flaws: rigid, narrow, stubborn, unimaginative, tetchy, lacking all social skills and most intellectual ones.”




But fundamentally her failure arose from the structural flaw of Brexit. Doing it is claimed to be the will of the people. But it can only be done at economic and geo-political costs that range from high to horrendous, which the people will not accept. Brexiters claim it can be done without any costs and, even, with benefits and persuaded a majority to vote for it on that basis. May tried to prove that true, but it was a lie. Because it was a lie, it couldn’t be delivered.

“Brexiters claim it can be done without any costs and, even, with benefits and persuaded a majority to vote for it on that basis. May tried to prove that true, but it was a lie. Because it was a lie, it couldn’t be delivered.”




Her successor will have exactly the same choice: face up to the lie, or face failure. To be elected leader by the Tory Party it will be impossible to do the former. So the consequence will be the latter. The only question is whether that failure will mean abandoning Brexit to avoid its costs, and facing the populist accusation of betrayal. Or agreeing the kind of deal that May came up with in order to somewhat mitigate the worst costs of Brexit, and facing the populist accusation of betrayal. Or proceeding with no-deal Brexit with all its horrendous costs, and facing the populist accusation of betrayal.

“Her successor will have exactly the same choice: face up to the lie, or face failure. To be elected leader by the Tory Party it will be impossible to do the former. So the consequence will be the latter.”




If she had tackled head on the structural lie at the heart of Brexit in her early weeks in office, when she was at her strongest and the meaning of Brexit was in flux, May had a chance – admittedly only a small chance – of avoiding that poisonous politics of betrayal. No doubt this was always the most likely consequence of the 2016 Referendum. Her legacy is to have made it inevitable.🔷




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[This piece was originally published on The Brexit Blog. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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(Cover: Flickr/Number 10 - Prime Minister Theresa May in the Cabinet Room in Downing Street. | 8 May 2019. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)



     

THE AUTHOR

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Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, and previously a professor at Cambridge University and Warwick University.

     


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