When Theresa May stood outside Downing Street almost 3 years ago, she spoke of her desires to end the ‘burning injustices’ that gripped Britain. At the same time, she was tasked with navigating the United Kingdom through the most complex geopolitical and economic changes the country has witnessed since the 1940s.
What Brexit required was a 'safe pair of hands', many said. An absence of charisma and close political friends was irrelevant. After all, The Cameron’s and Osborne’s of the realpolitik had helped write the tumultuous beginnings of this great British tragedy.
But it was indeed character that helped to catalyse May’s demise. No doubt she felt a stern sense of duty to serve in the national interest: such strong obligations were unfortunately not complemented with competence.
Strategically speaking, May’s premiership will be characterised by a catalogue of errors. Against the advice of expert Brussels diplomat Sir Ivan Rogers, and Brexit Permanent Secretary Olly Robbins, she invoked Article 50 before negotiations began. This sequencing mistake would thrust power into the hands of the EU, enabling them to run down the clock, and forcing Britain into accepting a poorer deal.
Fast forward to the Christmas of 2018, and the consequences of such a decision were well and truly starting to emerge.
Promising that we would leave on March 29th 2019 will remain in the collective conscience of the public. The language May used to curry favour with the right of her party permeated into the general population too. Having voted remain, the MP for Maidenhead was under pressure to establish her Brexit credentials. Unfortunately for her, many of the European Research Group (ERG), a Eurosceptic wing of the Conservatives, would never be satisfied by her attempts at departure.
And then came those famous words that Theresa May will be remembered by: Brexit means Brexit. Coupled with the claim that ‘no-deal is better than a bad deal’, she had performed a fatal act of self-harm on her premiership. This mantra has been partly responsible for 30% of the public being in favour of no-deal, and the newly formed Brexit party, whose only policy is a WTO (i.e. leaving without a deal) Brexit, storming the recent European elections.
Had May established a narrative of compromise early on, things may have been different. Although she would have faced fierce opposition from within her own Party by reaching out to Labour in 2016, a healthy cross-party relationship could have been carved out. It is worth remembering that, three years ago, the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn were deemed a much less credible political force.
The Corbyn supporting campaign group were far less prevalent in local Constituencies and, with Corbyn deemed weak, candidates in leave-leaning seats may have felt working together with a Conservative government was not too much of a risk.
Of course, working with their supposed ‘Marxist’ enemies needn’t have been necessary had the Prime Minister ran a competent General Election campaign. The defining decision of her career was calling the 2017 election. Her dour campaigning lost the Conservatives their majority, meaning the DUP effectively called the shots on any withdrawal agreement passing through the house.
Such uninspiring tales of running through wheat and cooking translated into the relationships that she formed (or failed to form) with those pulling the levers of power. Journalists could seldom get her to open up, unless it involved talking about her favourite shoes.
Her lack of trust in her own Cabinet encouraged the further scheming that she had been trying to punish. By alienating everyone, from Labour MPs that were willing to broker a deal, to her chief whips, May had put her fingers in her ears, and blamed Parliament for all the shortcomings.
She was partly right.
Now within a sniff of Number 10, the Opposition had no intention of being tainted by the poisoned chalice that is the Withdrawal Agreement. The right of her own Party eventually turned on her, when they realised that the backstop prevented Britain from being able to strike trade deals independently was a permanent fixture of May’s future deal. Indeed, she was armed with an enormous task, but her unclear messages to different strata of both Parliament and the public paralysed Parliament.
Her shining moment came in the wake of the Novichok poisoning. In the summer of 2018, her statesmanlike handling of alleged Russian intervention on British soil helped to paint her as a secure leader, in contrast with a Corbyn-led Opposition that was slow to criticise any Russian institutions. Such steady control was also displayed on environmental reform. But much like an expensive signing for Newcastle United under Mike Ashley, these were once-i-a-blue-moon moments.
The flames of injustice have been provided with further oxygen as a result of May’s premiership. The right question to ask may be if anybody else could have done better. Members of the Conservative Party will probably look for the antithesis of May: a charismatic, electable leader who ‘believes’ in Brexit. May might be thankful for such a successor, for they may resign her to being a slight footnote in history, rather than being the subject of scathing future history books.
This is because, whilst we may think that chaos captures our contemporary moment, I fear that this is actually the calm before the storm. With a deal being approved looking increasingly unlikely, the choices presented to us are either no-deal or remain. One would destroy the economy, whilst the other would shatter faith in democracy.
The Prime Minister that led Britain through either one of those scenarios would be held responsible for the probable death of their party, and the social unrest that would ensue. A kind historical memory of Theresa May would therefore be akin to a quick summary, for what is next to come is the real story.
So whilst Theresa May can be berated for the mistakes laced throughout her hectic tenure as Prime Minister, her final words ought to be remembered as a useful contribution to the future of British politics: ‘compromise is not a dirty word’. In a political moment that is desperately divided, turning to other tribes requires a lot of courage.
Both leaving without a deal, and stopping Brexit, will do nothing to unify the country, and achieve justice in society. The aim of the next Prime Minister should be to establish a compromise that leaves few people delighted but many only slightly dissatisfied. Failure to do so will amount to a true betrayal of Brexit.