LONDON — Theresa May knew the futility of her last stand, but was determined to make it anyway. She needed it.
The prime minister and her closest aides and officials had gathered in her office in Number 10 Downing Street to discuss their next steps following the collapse of cross-party talks with Labour.
It was May 16, 2019 — and no-one in the room could see a way forward. Their only option was to make one last offer to MPs: a chance to vote for a second referendum.
“Are you telling me it’s not going to work?” May asked the assembled aides sitting around her table or on sofas nearby, according one senior official familiar with the discussion that day. Her aides did not sugarcoat it: None thought it would work.
It was the moment May and her team had tried for so long to avoid — the end of the road. From that point it was only a matter of time. But the prime minister was determined to roll the dice anyway.
The scene reveals a prime minister whose commitment, duty and determination crashed up against an almost unprecedented evaporation of authority, power and influence after a series of catastrophic miscalculations. None was more damaging than her decision to call a snap general election in 2017, robbing her of the majority she needed to take Britain out of the EU with a deal acceptable to her Conservative Party.
“The imperceptible and unquantifiable phenomenon of political power” had drained away, said one Tory minister who backed her until the end. “It had gone.”
Theresa May had inherited the biggest political challenge for any U.K. prime minister since 1945 — and proved unequal to the task. Personal and political shortcomings met the inescapable reality of parliamentary arithmetic, EU power and the Irish border.
Instead of delivering Brexit and making the country work for provincial Britain, as she promised, she departs leaving an even bigger crisis than the one she inherited, with little — if anything — by way of domestic achievements to show by way of mitigation.
May had taken the job with a warning that failing to deliver Brexit would only empower the political extremes. Brexit meant Brexit, she said — it was a revolution that had to be enacted to stave off more dramatic disruption.
“We face a time of great national change,” May declared outside Number 10 on July 13, 2016 — her first day on the job. “And I know, because we’re Great Britain, that we will rise to the challenge.”
By May 21, 2019 — less than three years later — she had nothing to show and nothing left to give. “I have tried everything I possibly can to find a way through.”
Three days later it was over, but the message was the same as it had been almost three years before — a warning that the revolution would not go away.
“I feel as certain today as I did three years ago that in a democracy, if you give people a choice you have a duty to implement what they decide,” she said. “The referendum was not just a call to leave the EU but for profound change in our country.”
That call for profound change ultimately cost May her job.
After March 29, her third and final attempt to force through her Brexit divorce deal, the Conservative Party’s poll ratings nose-dived amid a surge in support for Nigel Farage’s populist Brexit Party demanding a no-deal withdrawal.
With May forced to take her finger out of the dyke, the surge now risks overwhelming the British political establishment.
The candidates to succeed her as Tory leader and prime minister — Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Steve Baker, Esther McVey, Andrea Leadsom, Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt — have all spoken of no-deal being preferable to no-Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour — a radical proposition in and of itself — is moving toward backing a second referendum. The crisis is not going away.
Will Tanner, who advised the prime minister for five years, and was her deputy head of policy at No. 10 until 2017, said it was ironic that May had been dragged from power by the very forces she warned against.
“I think she has long known the political consequences of not delivering on the referendum result and several of her speeches foreshadowed the return of Nigel Farage,” he said. “She has tried always to bring politics back to that mainstream middle-ground of public opinion. The difficulty is that she herself has not been able to be the leader, the prophet for the mainstream middle-ground vision. Partly that has left a vacuum for other people to fill.”
Party before Brexit
With an eye on her political obituary, May used her resignation speech Friday to insist she had left nothing on the pitch.
The truth, her critics counter, is that this is not the case. May went as far as she possibly could without breaking the Conservative Party.
She never considered a national government, a confirmatory second referendum or a soft Brexit deal inside the single market and customs union that Labour and the Scottish National Party might be able to support, because to do so would almost certainly have cost her the leadership of her party, or caused a permanent split.
Even at the end, she would only compromise so far: Her “bold” final offer to Labour was a guarantee that MPs would be given the chance to vote for or against a second referendum. This was not an offer to support a second referendum in order to pass her deal — it was an offer her aides knew was hollow, because parliament would not support it.
“She ignored certain strategic options because she wanted to keep the party together,” one leading Tory MP said. “But the party still imploded. It’s just total, total failure.”
May herself admitted she had tried to deliver a Tory Brexit first. “It is true that initially I wanted to achieve [Brexit] predominantly on the back of Conservative and DUP [Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party] votes,” she said Tuesday.
It is this which her critics say reveals her hopeless naivety as a politician.
Having surrendered her majority in the 2017 snap election, she clung on promising to stick the course — a promise she could never keep given the competing demands within the Conservative Party and its DUP allies.
A former Tory minister who was one of her early supporters said from the moment she lost her majority, the only way Brexit could be delivered was through compromise with the opposition because she would never be able to meet the demands of her backbench ideologues.
“She has showed incredibly poor judgement. She confused ideological big beasts with people who are actually capable of delivery,” the former minister said. “Drawing the red lines, triggering Article 50, calling a snap election — all of these were proffered by the big beasts in the party. She was incapable of working out who her real allies were and who were just pushing her in an ideological direction. Even after they tried to get rid of her she always pushed in the way of the hard Brexiteers.”
Others think her major strategic mistake was not committing to no-deal seriously.
Speaking to POLITICO, former Brexit Secretary David Davis said: “I don’t think her worse enemies would accuse her of not having a sense of duty. But she interpreted it in a way that was bound to fail.”
May is an unusual politician, let alone prime minister. She is introverted, robotic, uncommunicative. She is almost uniquely comfortable in awkward silence. She has few friends and even fewer true confidantes.
“Her inner circle consisted of herself and her husband, that’s it,” said one senior official who worked closely with her.
One Tory MP who worked with her closely was more blunt. “You had a prime minister who had almost no politicians as her friends. She never discussed things, she just received advice from people who owed their jobs to her — officials and advisers. She was permanently tone-deaf. It’s really hard to see what is positive of what has come out of this.”
But others — non politicians — who have worked for her reveal a woman who was good to work for — considerate, even kind.
At the end of the Chequers summit which saw ministers David Davis and Boris Johnson resign over plans for Britain to adopt a “common rulebook” with the EU, champagne was served to all the officials, aides and ministers who were there. The prime minister, avoiding conversation with her political colleagues, approached one of her more junior aides who was standing without a drink. She asked whether he’d been missed, which he had. “Let me go and get you one,” she said, and before he could stop her she had left the room to find him a glass.
“That’s what she’s like,” the official said.
For a period near the beginning of her term, this unshowy, intensely private politician seemed untouchable, on the brink of a landslide so huge it would have embarrassed Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher. Her aide Nick Timothy was boasting that they were redefining Toryism in months, in a way David Cameron and others had failed to do for years.
In March 2017, May was, at times, more than 20 points ahead in the polls and set for a majority comfortably more than 100. In the space of three months, she threw it all away, squandering her advantage on an election which exposed her flaws in the glare of a national campaign.
And yet she still took home comfortably more than 40 percent of the vote. “[She got] the highest Tory vote share since Margaret Thatcher, more votes than Tony Blair ever received, more working-class votes than a Conservative government has ever got,” Tanner says. “We very quickly forget that at a time when everyone is calling for her head.”
Brexit ‘Magna Carta’
Whatever May’s personal strengths or weaknesses, her legacy is not only one of tragic, total failure but also a noose her successors will struggle to escape from: the thrice rejected withdrawal agreement.
Within hours of May’s announcement, the EU confirmed it would not change the deal.
“There is no change,” European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva confirmed. The deal is the deal, whoever is in Number 10. Irish deputy PM Simon Coveney was quick to reiterate the same point.
“The chance of the EU looking again, making any changes, is absolutely minuscule,” one aide close to May said.
Even after no-deal, it will come back to the withdrawal agreement, he added. “It will always come back to this. As soon as you have no-deal and you start negotiating, the Irish will demand it goes back to the backstop.”
May’s successor will, therefore, be left with the same problem: a parliament which will not willingly allow a no-deal.
One Tory minister who now favors no-deal was unsure what May’s successor could realistically do. “I’m very skeptical that anyone who comes in will do any better,” he said. “The real issue is how you can negotiate with the EU. To put it all at her door is really harsh.”
“The only way anything might have been any different is if we had been united and committed to no-deal if we didn’t get what we wanted,” the minister added. “But that was never the case, and therefore we were stuffed — and that’s not her fault.”
A second senior Tory MP agreed. “My own question is whether it could’ve been avoided, because Brexit is a complete wrecking ball for the Tory party, in fact for anybody. It just toxifies whoever touches it.”
May’s real legacy, he said, was the withdrawal agreement, which was “pickled” whichever individual occupied Number 10. “It’s there forever — a Brexit Magna Carta.”
The longer the Conservative Party refuses to face up to this fact, the longer the crisis will last. “The Tory party will still be in delusion land because the party is not prepared to face the trade offs, and therefore to be a frontrunner in the contest you still have to indulge the party’s fantasies,” the MP said. “If they indulge these fantasies, they will simply end up in the same place as Theresa May.”
Even this arch-critic did not believe May would be remembered as the real Brexit enemy. “She is the prime minister who played a bad hand really badly,” he said. “But in the league table of blame, Cameron will rank higher than her. Cameron was just gambling more than even he realized he was gambling.”