The end of May: Time runs out for PM

Brexit created her. Brexit destroyed her. Not since Winston Churchill’s wartime premiership has a Prime Minister’s term of office been so defined by one issue.

Theresa May
Theresa May

Churchill led a country which was united in a common cause.

Theresa May’s UK has been a nation divided by something which has split parties, the population at large, and even families.

Of all the words which could describe her time in Number 10, extraordinary would be one of the milder ones.

  • Record Parliamentary defeat? Check.

  • Humiliation and disrespect at Brussels? Check.

  • Collapse of any pretence of Cabinet unity? Check.

Theresa May

There have been so many resignations that it’s been hard to keep track.

In normal times, no Prime Minister could have survived such repeated assaults on her authority.

But while Brexit did for Theresa May in the end, it also sustained her.

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Disaster to the right of her, disaster to the left (strictly speaking, middle ground) of her, she dealt with it by simply plodding on regardless.

This proved to be a successful survival strategy. You can imagine what she had in mind.

On the assumption that all Prime Ministers want to ensure that they get a good write-up in the history books, Mrs May wanted the chapter about her to be headed: The Prime Minister Who Delivered Brexit.

Theresa May

It has been an aspiration which has kept her going in that grim plodding-on process despite all those endless difficulties and defeats.

Indeed, as her MPs started to sharpen their axe, it also formed the basis of her offer to them which gave her a reprieve, at least for a while.

Let me deliver on Brexit, she told them, and once that’s happened I’ll go voluntarily.

In this, she was offering to lay down her political life for the cause.

The alternative was to be the Prime Minister who had negotiated for two years and failed to deliver on her repeated promises.

That dreaded F-word is not something any politician wants in Who’s Who.

Theresa May

There will be many harsh things said about Mrs May’s tenure, but the question also has to be asked, if not her, then who?

Reel the tape back to that period just after the 2016 referendum.

David Cameron had done a sharp exit from 10 Downing Street and the Conservative Party needed a leader who would be accepted by both Leave and Remain MPs, and by those on the right and those further to the left of the party.

At that hour, she was the woman for the hour.

Although a Remainer, she had been low profile during the referendum campaign, suggesting a lack of ideological commitment to the EU which was comforting to Leavers.

Cheers all round and raise a glass to the new leader.

Theresa May

Okay, she was not a smooth-talking posh boy in the Cameron/Clegg/Blair mould, but the country had had enough of those.

For what lay ahead, being described as a “bloody difficult woman” by Ken Clarke was a positive recommendation.

And immediately she reassured the Brexiteers by appointing Boris Johnson, David Davis, and Liam Fox into the three key Brexit-delivering positions.

There must have come a point when she realised her cup of joy had become a poisoned chalice.

It may well have come in one of the very first meetings with Michel Barnier when he set the tone for the negotiations which were to follow with the EU.

“Britain must be taught a lesson,” he said.

Inherent disadvantage

The years and months which followed have been bruising.

Mrs May has been at an inherent disadvantage in the talks, being an elected politician answerable to a restive and divided House of Commons in which the majority of MPs do not have their hearts in Brexit and as the going has got tough have increasingly harboured the hope that they can make it go away altogether.

Facing a brick wall in Brussels, and chaos and confusion in the Commons, things have been so bad that there has been a measure of public sympathy for her, and a recognition of her doggedness, dignity, and sense of duty.

These are admirable traits, but Mrs May is a politician, and her tenure must be assessed through political criteria.

The most crushing criticism of her is that the difficulties she has faced are not some accident of political history.

She has been directly responsible for creating them through her mistakes.

Which brings us to the general election of June 2017.

Seduced by a double-digit lead in the opinion polls, Mrs May saw an opportunity to strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations, and engineered a general election which was totally unnecessary and under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act had not been due until 2020.

The opinion polls proved rubbish in terms of accuracy and as the Tory and Labour policy on Brexit was at that time very similar it proved to be a general election revolving around familiar economic and social themes.

The Prime Minister dropped a public relations clanger in the Conservative manifesto – manifestos are one of the charades of modern politics containing promises which are quietly dropped when in office – and her refusal to admit she could possibly be wrong about anything at all did not play well.

The rest we know and has provided the political climate for everything since.

The Tories lost their overall majority and had to grovel to the DUP.

'Brexit Means Brexit'

Both factors proved fatal in Mrs May’s hopes of winning Parliamentary approval for her deal with the EU.

Another mark against her reputation is, to put it bluntly, you couldn’t believe what she said.

She is not unique among politicians in that, but the difference is the importance of the issues on which Mrs May declared falsely.

“Brexit Means Brexit,” was an early mantra.

Chaos, confusion, and uncertainty with Mrs May at the heart, actually.

  • “No deal is better than a bad deal.” That seems so long ago now.

  • “I’m not going to call a general election.” She did.

  • “We will be leaving the EU on March 29.” We didn’t.

Then there was the hokey-cokey of the voting dates on her deal. And lots more besides.

After the general election of 2017 former Chancellor George Osborne described Mrs May as a “dead woman walking” and it was only a question of how long she remained in death row.

Wrong again, George.

Because her USP was that she defied the early-obituarists.

She survived. Humiliated, politically weak – but, for so long, strangely indestructible. But now her singular survival act appears to be at an end.

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