As Theresa May’s voice broke into a tearful statement that it has ‘been an honour to serve the country I love’, the message was clear: only compromise will achieve Brexit. The Prime Minister informed the country that she will stand down on June 7 as Conservative Party leader. Next will be the leadership contest, to decide the future premier of the country.
After three years in the role, May has made some considerable achievements. Her speech after the Manchester Terror attacks helped unite the nation, and her handling of the Russian Skripal poisoning case won international praise. However, her failure over Brexit and most pertinently her lack of leadership in explaining her decisions, will overshadow most of this, and leaves her party in a very fragile state.
It is here over Brexit where the Conservative Party is about to learn the wrong lesson from her premiership. Traditionally, succeeding prime ministers are the opposite of their predecessor, particularly when the party internally decides. Therefore, Boris Johnson’s bombastic personality, hard-man rhetoric, and stance favouring a no deal Brexit seems the natural alternative to May’s cautious withdrawal deal — one that has failed to garner loud cheers of support from either side.
Many in the Conservative Party, especially following the success of Farage’s Brexit Party in the European elections, believe a no deal Brexit is the only way to succeed and regain national support. But this couldn’t be more wrong.
If we consider why May’s deal failed, it was because her version of a compromise didn’t match up to the rhetoric of the Prime Minister’s earlier statements on Brexit, that so clearly lit up hardline Brexiters with joy and alienated Labour MPs in Leave seats past the point of no return. When May later returned with a tone of moderation and conciliation it was simply too late, the damage had already been done. It was not the serial of the compromise, but the isolating tone of May’s strategy that failed.
Theresa May stated during Friday’s resignation speech that ‘compromise is not a dirty word’ — implying, that any future leader who fails to heed this advice will fail over the battle of Brexit as brutally and cruelly as she has.
The Prime Minister has made two fatal mistakes concerning Brexit. One: triggering Article 50 without a plan, and two: selling a deal to a group that simply were never going to accept it, whilst losing the support of those that were more likely to offer backing. The latter is reflective of her lack of ability in being able to sympathise with and persuade others — apparent in the election failure of 2017.
In six months’ time picture this scene: Boris Johnson or any other Brexiteer Tory leader is blocked by Parliament with their no deal plan and forced to go to the nation in an election. At the moment it is unclear whether a no deal would be met with enormous national support. It is also worth considering that many are voting Farage not for a no deal but rather as a protest at the failure to deliver Brexit.
Unless support can be gained for a no deal, Theresa May’s successor will most likely fall to the same sword of Brexit. The withdrawal agreement was not perfect, indeed it lives up to few of Vote Leave’s promises, but it did lay the groundwork for an exit from the EU. One does question whether May’s greatest mistake was not the details of her plan, but the way she sold it prior to its release.
Both Leave and Remain MPs believe that they can still control Brexit and make significant improvements on May’s deal, either by making it harder or by revoking Article 50. A sign of any revolution is the increasing radicalisation of both sides, as the leader of the time fails to find agreement. Indeed, after three years May has left both Leave and Remain further apart than ever. Nevertheless, in such a binary question over Europe, only one outcome can win. Whoever carries this battle will be instrumental in writing her legacy. To the loser, a missed opportunity; to the winner, a turning point in moving the country towards no deal or Remain.
Amid the emotional resignation of yet another Conservative Prime Minister, as the party loses its credibility as a group capable of ruling, May’s legacy should be the lesson to compromise. This, and not the ambition of a no deal, should dictate the next Conservative leadership contest.
Otherwise, Leave voters may find themselves looking back on May’s three years as the greatest missed opportunity to deliver Brexit, and the history books will be far kinder to her legacy, as they compare her failures against those of her successor.
And just one final point. The last fifteen seconds of May’s emotional speech may be the ones to cause the most lasting damage to the Tory Party. Yet another Conservative leader, yet another female prime minister pushed out of office by men in grey suits. Yes, the reasons behind her downfall are primarily her own doing, but bold images stay far longer in the consciousness of the electorate than minor details.