On the 24th of May, Theresa May announced her impending resignation as Conservative Party leader. As a result, a leadership contest has begun for who is to become the next Prime Minister. May’s resignation was overdue and had been expected on and off ever since the Conservatives lost their majority in 2017. This presents an opportunity of which the Conservatives will undoubtedly attempt to take advantage.
We are sure to see Conservative leaders trying to place the blame for our political crisis solely on May’s performance as Prime Minister. However, this could not be further from the truth. This crisis is the consequence of self-interested opportunism from the Conservative Party in the last few years. From Cameron to the current leadership hopefuls, Conservative politicians have hijacked the British government and put us in the situation we are in today.
The public interest in the EU today can be attributed to the referendum and the years of discussion following it. Pressure originally came from a minority of people influential in Westminster. There has always been a minority of Conservative backbenchers who vehemently opposed the EU, influenced by the Euroscepticism of Thatcher. Supporting them have been right-wing media giants such as the Sun and the Daily Mail. The third point of pressure came from UKIP, who got 3.9 million votes in the 2015 general election.
This only amounted to one seat in parliament, but it drew votes away from the Conservatives. Therefore, Cameron created a plan to rid himself of this pressure. He believed that the remain vote would certainly win if he held a referendum of Britain’s membership of the EU. He had used this strategy before in 2011, to end Liberal Democrat pressure for electoral reform. Then again with Scotland in 2014, to end pressure for Scottish independence.
Cameron presumed that remain would win the referendum and therefore did not prepare the country for a vote to leave. Crucial issues such as the Northern Irish border and the Good Friday Agreement were completely ignored for his immediate political benefit. Regardless of the rightness or wrongness of the referendum result, we were wholly unprepared to begin this process. This could have been avoided if Cameron had created a plan. Instead, he jumped ship and left the country in the mess that he had created.
Following his resignation, May became Prime Minister. Before long, she made her first disastrous mistake. Rather than learn from Cameron and plan, she did the opposite. She self-imposed the deadline of 29th of March 2017 to trigger Article 50, beginning the process of leaving the EU. This meant that the British government still had no plan for the negotiations when it set itself a deadline to leave. Ivan Rogers, the former UK ambassador to the EU argued that this forfeited any leverage we had over the EU before we had even begun.
The triggering of Article 50 meant we had just two years to conclude negotiations and much of this time was wasted in trying to decide our own position. All the EU had to do was wait. Our trade is reliant on the EU, who make up 46.6% of our exports. To put this in context, the next largest destination is the US, who make up only 13.3%. If May had created a consensus and plan before triggering Article 50, we could have avoided her deal being rejected and the possibility of us dropping out without a deal.
Holding a referendum and triggering Article 50 without a plan put Britain in a dire situation. The 2017 general election arguably put the nail in the coffin. It seems strange now that May was once very popular. Being the second female Prime Minister, she even got compared to Thatcher, the ‘Iron Lady’. After succeeding Cameron without being elected by anybody, she had repeatedly promised she would not be holding a general election. Her argument was that the country needed stability. Nonetheless, she went on to call a snap election.
With the Conservatives polling 21% ahead of Labour, she hoped this would be an easy victory. If the pollsters were correct, this would give her a massive majority in Parliament. Therefore, it was a nasty surprise when Labour finished less than 4% behind and the Conservatives lost their majority in Parliament. It is difficult for a minority government to govern the country altogether. A minority government trying to pass important Brexit legislation was arguably doomed from the start. But, ultimately, she had no one to blame but herself. She ran a dismal campaign, with such memorable policies as the ‘Dementia Tax’ and a return to fox hunting.
These three mistakes by Conservative leaders were so damning that, over two years later, we have made no progress and are on the brink of a no-deal exit. May has been unable to control Parliament in the slightest since her electoral disaster. When a successor is chosen, they will not be able to control Parliament either. The numbers just do not add up. May’s 2017 election ensured that no position on Brexit can achieve a majority.
Nonetheless, the contestants for Prime Minister do not seem to have learned any of these lessons. They are making increasingly extreme arguments to distinguish themselves and win-over the Conservative membership. Leading candidates such as Boris Johnson and Andrea Leadsom have advocated leaving the EU without any deal. This is even though, before the referendum, even the most ardent Brexiteers such as Farage and Johnson were advocating what we might now almost call a ‘soft Brexit’. Regardless, the candidates are happy to preach a no-deal exit if it will make them Prime Minister. Some candidates, such as Dominic Raab have even said they would not rule out suspending Parliament and, therefore, democracy to force a no-deal exit.
The situation since 2016 has gone from bad to worse. But this was not inevitable. This is the consequence of decisions made by the Conservative leadership. The problem here is not solely that they made bad decisions, but that they made bad decisions for entirely selfish reasons. Rather than owning the mistakes made, the next Conservative leader will place the blame on May and ride the wave of instability that they helped to create.