British Prime Minister Theresa May has pledged to resign on June 7th after two and a half years after facing a major backlash within her party, including members of her own cabinet, over her decision to put her deal before Parliament for the fourth time. Her resignation has now thrown open the door for her many leadership contenders to start making their pitch for leader and Prime Minister, including current front-runner Boris Johnson. The leadership contest is set to conclude in mid-July with Theresa May potentially acting as a interim Prime Minister until her successor is chosen.
In a tearful resignation speech, Theresa May reaffirmed her belief that she was right to try and deliever the result of the 2016 referendum to leave the European Union. She stated “I believe it was right to persevere, even when the odds against success seemed high. But it is now clear to me that it is in the best interests of the country for a new prime minister to lead that effort.” She further signalled that her failure to deliver Brexit is one she will carry for the rest of her life and one that her successor must take up themselves. Theresa May clarified that “he or she will have to find consensus in parliament where I have not.”
Despite her attempt to list some of her achievements while in office (some of which have already been called into question), there is no doubt that Theresa May will forever be associated with Brexit and her failed attempt to deliver what she believed was the best deal for Britain – and that history will not look kindly upon her efforts.
Indeed, her sudden announcement in 2017 to hold a general election was clearly to gain an even bigger majority in Parliament, a theory that polls at the time seemed to support. Instead, a resurgent Labour Party under an openly socialist agenda, coupled with a badly mis-managed campaign for the Conservatives, saw Theresa May lose her majority, forcing her to broker a deal with the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party), a pro-Brexit party based in Northern Ireland which itself voted to remain in the EU.
The loss of her majority was considered to be a slice of humble pie for Theresa May, but it did nothing to dull her vision of Brexit. Theresa May simply continued to push her ideas of Brexit into a divided Parliament without ever seeking to compromise or even make allowances for her diminished status.
Many will therefore scoff at her admission that she failed to find consensus within Parliament, along with her assertion that “Compromise is not a dirty word”. For many within and without Parliament, Theresa May will be remembered for trying to ram a deeply unpopular Brexit deal through Parliament several times, running down the clock on the Brexit deadline and pandering to the prejudices of her more extreme colleagues rather than seeking outside opinion. Even her attempt to hold talks with Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK Labour Party eventually collapsed due to her inability to give into Labour demands.
Theresa May can even be considered to have had a deeply corrosive effect on British politics, blaming Parliament for being unable to deliver Brexit and asserting the referendum as “the will of the people” and that “Brexit means Brexit.” Many MPs were alienated by what they saw as inflammatory language that deliberately set the people against its own elected representatives. This has become a full-throated roar under Nigel Farage’s newly created Brexit Party, which is set to sweep into the European Parliament by harnessing the anger of many Leave voters
Theresa May once told votes in 2017 that she was a “bloody difficult woman”, a title she wore as a badge of honour in her dealings with Europe. It has come back to haunt many Conservatives who considered their various attempts to push her out of office to be just as difficult. In wooing many hardline Brexit supporters, she closed herself off from more palatable options that might have commanded a majority in Parliament. Her later attempts to compromise came off as desperate and too little, too late to Remain voters while Leave voters considered any compromise a betrayal.
Theresa May joins the ranks of Conservative Prime Ministers whose leadership has been brought down by the question of Europe and Ireland. Much like her counterpart, Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May has been consumed by the divisions within her own party without having the skills to overcome them. Her ability to survive resignations and rebellions that would have toppled previous Prime Minister has been much admired and she managed to at least get a deal from the EU. But it could not last forever. As one commentator pointed out on Monday, when the backlash against Theresa May grew into open rebellion, “Theresa May has finally run out of road.”
What this means for Brexit in general is difficult to say as much will depend on who ends up succeeding Theresa May as Prime Minister. The contest is set to wrap up in mid July, just before the Parliamentary recess, which may mean that any further progress on Brexit may have to wait until September at the earliest.
Unfortunately, the new deadline for Britain to leave the EU is October 31st which will either mean yet another extension, revoking Article 50 and halting Britain’s exit from Europe or crashing out with no deal.
Others suggest that a new Prime Minister must either call for a general election or a new referendum in order to break the deadlock within Parliament.
Whatever the case may be, Theresa May has left her successor with an enormous task to shoulder and which, through her own lack of compromise and leadership, has left the country she loved and led even more divided than ever.