In announcing her resignation on Friday, UK Prime Minister Theresa May was for a brief moment more passionate than she has been in almost three years as prime minister.
Her resignation came six months too late, long after she had failed to present a consensus deal on the UK leaving the European Union, which had been her mandate. It also came long after it was clear that she was unable to lead the country in this difficult time and after squandering numerous opportunities to be more transparent about the UK’s problems.
She spoke a lot in her speech about herself. She was honored to have had the opportunity to serve the country she loves, she said. She felt in a democracy one must implement the choice of the people, a reference to the fact that she had opposed Brexit, but had been chosen to lead the country anyway in 2016.
“I have done my best. I negotiated the terms of our exit,” she said. “I have done everything I can to convince members of Parliament.” She also said that she had tried three times to get MPs to back her deal for leaving the EU.
In fact, May’s leadership was largely opaque and dithering. She did little to build consensus, either in her own party or with other parties, and went to the EU to negotiate without strong backing at home. This ensured that she would always be outplayed by the powerful bosses in Brussels. Time and again she appeared more like a beggar going to various European leaders, hat in hand, to ask for more time and flexibility in discussions about how Great Britain would leave.
The Europeans outsmarted May because, as a leader of a democracy, they could read about her weak support at home. They also wanted to punish the UK for having voted for Brexit. For the 28-country EU to survive, the UK must fail at leaving. That is because the EU leaders, especially European Council President Donald Tusk, wanted to send a message that leaving the EU has consequences.
It is “not open for renegotiation,” he said in January when May once again went back to Brussels. He said the deal that the EU allowed her was the “best and only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU.”
By January 2019 it was already too late. The UK voted in a referendum to leave in June 2016. May became prime minister in July, and triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty on March 29, 2017. That meant that the UK was supposed to leave the EU two years later, by the end of March 2019.
This timeline was clear from the moment May took office on July 11, 2016. She didn’t have to take office if she didn’t want to carry out Brexit. She took over from David Cameron, who had gambled on the Brexit referendum failing.
When she came into office she was hailed as the UK’s potential next “Iron Lady,” a new iteration of Margaret Thatcher, who would lead the UK to being a powerful sovereign country away from the EU and to chart its new course. But at every single step May dithered. She had a public face of being tough on terror and immigration, claiming in 2017 that she would tear up human rights laws to deport extremists. But privately she was not as transparent or clear on her policies.
The first signs of her failure came in the June 2017 elections in which the Conservatives lost 13 seats and Labour under Jeremy Corbyn gained 30. It was a defeat for her. But, as with Brexit, she simply shrugged it off.
To understand the trajectory of May’s leadership, we need to understand that she had taken power a year before the election and had already triggered Article 50. She wanted to strengthen her ability to negotiate Brexit but instead eroded it. She could have resigned in 2017 and given someone else the chance. Instead she stayed on.
Throughout the fall of 2017 and the spring of 2018, she negotiated with the EU and also sought to prepare the UK to go it alone internationally. But many of her allies in her own party felt they were being misled. Brexit Secretary David Davis resigned in June, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson left in July of 2018, and half a dozen others resigned that summer. This left the EU feeling confident that May would walk back Brexit. Tusk said it was a “mess” and that he hoped the concept of Brexit would be scratched now that the hard-liners had resigned.
So here in July 2018 May had another chance to make a decision. Her own government felt she had misled them and they couldn’t support her deal. The EU felt it had won.
Transport Minister Jo Johnson articulated that in November 2018 when he noted that the UK should consider another referendum. “To present the nation with a choice between two deeply unattractive outcomes, vassalage [to the EU] or chaos.” How had it come to this? Only months before the UK was supposed to leave it was being left with no real choice. Either a no deal or “hard Brexit,” where the country crashes out of the EU unprepared, or a deal in which the UK still lacks full sovereignty.
How was it possible that May had spent so much time since being elected achieving so little?
She should have resigned in November, but she didn’t. More of her government resigned. Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab left and so did Esther McVey, secretary of state for work and pensions.
McVey noted that the UK had “gone from no deal is better than a bad deal, to any deal is better than no deal.” These were strong words, and May should have been excoriated for losing two Brexit secretaries and having numerous members of her own government accuse her of lacking transparency and being unable to bring home a decent deal.
Even as winter approached in 2018 May’s government hadn’t dealt with basic details of Brexit, such as what would happen with the Irish border. Ireland is in the EU and it wanted the seamless border with Northern Ireland to remain the same after Brexit. Under the deal, the UK would keep a single customs territory.
If you read the latest statements by May in a speech earlier this month what you find is that she still was making “promises” about the Irish border. Why hadn’t that been worked out a year earlier? Why did the UK blunder into March 2019, when it was supposed to leave, and still not know what the border would look like? May simply didn’t take her mandate seriously.
The result has been obvious. The UK wandered into March 2019 and postponed Brexit until the fall. Rather than leaving, the prime minister tried again and again to put her failed deal before the MKs. She even tried talking to Labour, which she should have done in 2017. Unsurprisingly, Conservatives have faired badly in polls. In the EU elections, which the UK was never supposed to take part in, many of those who voted for Brexit and felt betrayed have deserted the Conservatives.
One almost gets the feeling that if May had simply been elected to destroy the Conservative Party and make the UK seem to be an ungovernable country, then she succeeded in spades. But ostensibly she was supposed to take the country out of the EU in an orderly manner.
Today the UK’s stature in the international community has been eroded, and the pound sterling eroded sharply. Because London wants to leave the EU and preserve its economy, it has been generally spineless in international relations during the Brexit period, preferring to try to find allies wherever it can. Therefore it is more timid in its human rights criticism and tends toward working with more authoritarian regimes.
This is unfortunate. It also means that Western powers have lost a key voice when it comes to numerous problems that currently beset the world.
For instance, Western democracies need stronger leadership from Whitehall regarding Iran and Russia, as well as Turkey’s actions. Europe and the US also needs the UK to deal with the current crises with China over Huawei’s 5G network. UK Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson was fired due to a scandal involving a leak about Huawei and the 5G network. The UK is concerned about national security and “possible risks” regarding the Huawei deal, according to the BBC. Huawei has been blacklisted by the US. This has huge ramifications for the “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing that binds the US, UK, New Zealand, Canada and Australia. The UK needs to play a role alongside these historic partners, but May’s Brexit chaos has cost it dearly.
The failure at the top in London is emblematic of failure across western countries. In France the government has dealt with “Yellow Vest” protests for six months. Across Europe populist and far-right parties are on the rise in the EU elections. Many of them are united in the same anger at elite political classes and EU bureaucrats that seem to be getting wealthier while others receive little benefit.
There is a widespread feeling that the traditional political classes of social democrats and Christian democrats, or basically centrists, have failed to grapple with unemployment, immigration and cultural crises. There is also a feeling that the powerful have sold out the working class, leaving them to growing troubles in urban areas, while they go off skiing and relaxing behind security and gates.
Whether this is accurate or just lurid tales of populist propaganda is not always clear. European countries have turned the corner on rising unemployment. But they still seem incapable of dealing with decades of immigration crises. They appear to prefer to foist the problems on each other, passing the buck, rather than create a continent-wide strategy.
When they do have a strategy it involves cynical deals with Turkey or Libya to keep refugees away. The result is threats by parties in places like Libya to stop the human rights groups that use ships to bring mostly African refugees to Europe from near the coast of North Africa.
But refugees and unemployment aren’t the only issues that required the UK to work with the EU and with global powers. There is also concerns over Russian meddling in elections. There are concerns over Turkey’s policy in places like Afrin. And what about rising Iran-US tensions and the civil war in Yemen?
In addition the EU needs to do better at fighting extremism and terror. But the UK’s answer has been to turn its back on its citizens who joined ISIS, pretending that hundreds of British citizens detained in eastern Syria simply don’t exist. These are dangerous criminals who committed crimes against humanity, but the UK hasn’t done any soul searching in trying to figure out how they grew up in the UK and embraced modern-day Nazism in the form of Islamic State extremism.
May’s government had some pillars of strength. She relied on Sajiv Javid as home secretary and he has generally presented a no-nonsense hard-line approach to crime and terrorism. He will likely be a rising contender in what remains of the Conservative Party.
But May undermined many others in her party. She didn’t do it simply because she was honorable and serving her country, as she said. She was purposely not transparent with both the people in the UK and her own party. A vote even held the UK government in contempt of Parliament under May’s tenure. This was embarrassing.
May’s failure is a lesson. One cannot lead a country by lacking transparency at home and negotiating abroad from a position of weakness. One cannot lead a country without providing people with answers and a timetable in the midst of important issues such as Brexit.
This was a historic change for the UK. It was confronted as if it were as simple as ordering a hamburger at a fast food joint. Seemingly, Brexit was never taken seriously from the start. So why not just hold a second referendum? Because May believed in the mandate of the people. She deserves credit for that. The problem was that she continued on long after it was clear she was incapable of delivering the result. This has harmed the UK domestically and abroad.
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