On Friday, Theresa May, perhaps the worst Conservative prime minister in recent history, announced her resignation outside of number 10 Downing Street. She will step down effective June 7.
“I have done my best,” she insisted. “I have done everything I can. . . . I believe it was right to persevere even when the odds against success seemed high.” She went on:
For many years, the great humanitarian Sir Nicholas Winton, who saved the lives of hundreds of children by arranging their evacuation from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia through Kindertransport, was my constituent in Maidenhead. At another time of political controversy, a few years before his death, he took me to one side at a local event and gave me a piece of advice.
He said: “Never forget that compromise is not a dirty word. Life depends on compromise.” He was right.
As we strive to find the compromises we need in our politics, whether to deliver Brexit or restore devolved government in Northern Ireland, we must remember what brought us here.
But what did bring us here; here, this unfortunate place of constitutional crisis and extreme polarization? Was it, as Mrs. May suggests, forces beyond her control, or was it three years of her incompetent leadership?
At her urging, let’s try to “remember.”
Theresa May became the second female prime minister after the Brexit referendum result and David Cameron’s resignation in July 2016. In March 2017, she decided to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, setting the Brexit process into motion and giving the United Kingdom exactly two years to exit the bloc.
In 2017, May then called a snap election, which threw away her party’s majority and propelled Jeremy Corbyn within striking distance of power. Needing support in facing this threat, May was forced into a coalition with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party.
Given the needless and catastrophic damage inflicted by the general election, this was the obvious moment for her to resign. But she didn’t. After insincerely promising a commitment to Brexit (“no deal is better than a bad deal”), May then came up with an unbelievably bad deal: the withdrawal agreement, which was crushed by historic margins in parliament. Again, here she should have resigned. But again, she didn’t. Her deal was then rejected two further times and each time May clung on, only narrowly surviving a vote of no-confidence in December of last year.
So, what to make of this? In her resignation speech May extolled the virtues of compromise. But her mishandling of the Brexit negotiations was never about strategic diplomacy in pursuit of Britain’s best interests, it was about political incompetence in a damage-control exercise gone badly wrong.
By signaling to the European Union that she would not entertain no deal, May allowed the Brussels and the two-thirds Remain majority in Westminster to use secondary issues as bully tactics. After 2017, May began to make concessions that were unthinkable to most Leave voters. The Irish backstop, the regulatory annexation of Northern Ireland, and finally — with her fourth attempt at a deal this month — cross-party talks with the Labour party, which entertained the idea of a second referendum (the precise opposite of Brexit).
Compromise is indeed the stuff of life. But it is not the same as weakness. In April 1938, Neville Chamberlain, in responding to the threat of fascism on the continent, sought out a number of “compromises” that, if enacted, would have proven disastrous. In an attempt at “peace with honour,” he conceded to almost all of Hitler’s demands. Of course, the EU isn’t quite Hitler. And, thankfully, Brexit is hardly a world war. But it is the greatest peacetime issue of the last century. Westminster knows this only too well, as I wrote in October last year in a profile on the former foreign secretary and Brexiteer Boris Johnson:
In the Palace of Westminster, next to the bomb-damaged Churchill’s arch in Members’ Lobby, are four bronze statues that tower over some smaller busts of lesser-known prime ministers. The looming figures are David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, and Margaret Thatcher. Pointing to the latter two, a trusted Johnson aide told me, “We are living in as decisive times as these. And we need a prime minister of such stature.” Not Boris, surely! some will protest, knowing full well that Britain could do much worse. And already has.
Theresa May said today that it was a matter of “deep regret” that she hasn’t delivered Brexit. But three years ago, it seems, a half-competent leader could have enacted a persuasive and moderate Brexit with a comfortable majority. A half-competent leader, making the kinds of mistakes Theresa May has made, would also have known when to quit. She has been entirely uncompromising on that front — resigning only when forced to.
Which is why I don’t feel in the least bit sorry for the trembling ninny. As far as political obituaries go, Mrs. May is survived by the disintegrated remains of the Tories and populist drain (the Brexit party). How’s that for a legacy?