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Down goes May

  • Published at 12:00 am May 26th, 2019
Theresa May
Photo: REUTERS

Brexit has rapidly become a touchstone issue for political identity

Europe has claimed the career of yet another Conservative prime minister. After less than three years in office, Theresa May has suffered a catastrophic loss of confidence in her leadership. She has finally faced up to the demands from within her party and announced her resignation. May said she had tried her best to deliver Brexit but accepted that she had not managed to get MPs to agree. She said, she was leaving with no ill will, only “gratitude.” 

May’s resilience has been remarkable. But it is also finite. Leaders can only lead when they have followers and too few Tories are now prepared to follow May any longer. Much of the drama, of course, has been fuelled by Brexit. It has been the source of most of her woes. And it has finally wrecked her premiership.So where did it go wrong?

The first is, of course, when she presented a new set of “compromises” on her Brexit plans that would please precisely no one. 

She had been planning to present them for a parliamentary vote, despite already having lost three votes on her deal. The deal was now utterly toxic, and May’s intention to persist suggested a loss of judgment. 

The second point at which it all went wrong was the 2017 general election. The Conservatives gained votes but lost their parliamentary majority. May lost much of her personal authority as a result.

Her authority would have been greater, to be sure, and she would have had more MPs to support her, but it is unlikely that the withdrawal agreement would have looked much different. May has made many mistakes along the way. Her suggestion early on that “no deal is better than a bad deal” was always a hostage to fortune.

Brexit has rapidly become a touchstone issue for political identity, akin to abortion and gun control in the US.

In the circumstances, the window for compromise was always small and fleeting. As she confirmed that she was giving up, May sent a signal to potential successors, speaking once again about compromise, revealing that the late British humanitarian Nicholas Winton once told her: “Never forget that compromise is not a dirty word. Life depends on compromise.” 

Nicholas Allen is a Reader in Politics, Royal Holloway. A version of this article previously appeared on The Conversation UK.