As the PM throws in the towel as Tory leader, Alex Mayer looks at her legacy.
And so, we bid farewell to Theresa May as Conservative leader.
She has been an obstinate and ineffective Prime Minister who never listened. She will be remembered as a politician who further divided our country and further angered our closest neighbours and partners.
It did not have to be this way. Undoubtedly she inherited a mess from David Cameron but she proceeded to play every card she had badly and must take the responsibility and blame for where we are today – she leaves Britain on the brink.
On Brexit, she made early strategic blunders that would haunt her premiership, most importantly triggering Article 50 prematurely. She misunderstood the position of the EU27 and set out impossible red lines that would doom her to failure.
Advice was on offer, but she chose to ignore it. Back in January 2017 Sir Ivan Rogers the UK’s ambassador to the European Union sounded the warning bell laying out in black and white Britain’s serious lack of negotiating experience foretelling how we would be outclassed in the Brexit talks. In his damning resignation email he spoke of “ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking” which haunted May for the next three years.
In the same month she decided to make her Lancaster House speech. Here she set herself on an impossible course, by choosing an extreme interpretation of the referendum in a doomed to fail attempt to sate the extreme Brexiteers. She did nothing to reach out to soft Brexiteers or Remainers. She laid out how she would leave the Single Market and Customs Union and ruled out any future role for the European Court of Justice. She failed to grasp the gravity of the future of the Northern Ireland border.
She also bewildered the EU27 who were crying out to know what Britain wanted. To them this showed “muddled thinking”. They wanted a negotiating position to match the formal, detailed documents they were issuing but all they were given was a speech.
Of course this played to the EU27’s advantage as they published the guidelines which ultimately became the text of the Withdrawal Agreement. Perhaps May could be forgiven for making the error once, but the tone deaf PM was incapable of learning from her mistakes as shown by her Florence speech eight months later, still shouting at the EU27 via megaphone as they made detailed preparations in quiet Brussels rooms.
Just maybe, she could still have got achieved her goal of leaving the EU if she had not thrown away her Commons majority in another fateful decision that was hers alone. Her General Election campaign was dire with policies that angered her core voters and addressed none of the burning injustices in the country. She fought a campaign based on her as a “strong and stable leader” and even when it was abundantly clear the strategy was failing, she carried on regardless, doubling down. She was as tone deaf in the General Election as she was with Brexit.
She could not hear the howls of anguish over Grenfell, nor the creaking of the bonds that tie the United Kingdom together. She lost in Parliament and declared nothing had changed and lost again and again. She put her fingers in her ears and set worrying precedents. No Prime Minister should survive the defeats she endured.
Her final crime was normalising the a dangerous notion, with her often repeated line that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. This untruth has been seized upon by leading contenders to be the next Prime Minister as a raft of candidates battle to become leader of a poisonous party with policies that will make our country weaker, poorer and more isolated.
So farewell May – and may your legacy be a warning to other leaders to stop, look and listen.
Alex Mayer is a former Labour MEP.
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