Theresa May’s sense of duty will go only get her so far. MURRAY HAWTHORNE says that she needs to show leadership to end the parliamentary stalemate she created.
Theresa May won her vote of no confidence – but only just. Her 200 votes comprise a hollow victory; she herself a leader in purgatory on borrowed time. Since triggering Article 50 over 21 months ago the prime minister has held resolute in the face of repeated humiliation. May has taken a lost majority on the chin, and confronted vulgar threats from her own MPs while being roundly undermined by European leaders in Salzburg and Brussels.
While many disagree with her on the substance of her policies, few can deny that her sense of duty in the face of such successive embarrassments has been admirable. The PM has stayed the course where many, including her predecessor, have given up. However, while this is a rare trait in an era of populist and fickle politicians, her sense of duty is rapidly morphing into a kind of fanaticism blinkered from reality.
It is true that the prime minister has managed a major feat of diplomacy: any deal is an impressive achievement. But while she has fulfilled the mandate of the referendum, she has failed to secure the vital coalition it needs in the House – she burnt her bridges long ago.
May has wasted the last 21 months setting out red lines that have gradually faded into a pastel pink, estranging the right of her party to the point of distrust and open rebellion. The Florence, Lancaster, and Mansion House speeches laid the PM’s groundwork for compromise. But her ‘Brexit means Brexit’ mantra came crashing down with Chequers, alienating the ERG for good.
Spectacularly, and simultaneously, she alienated the moderates in her party by declaring them ‘citizens of nowhere’ if they didn’t share her vision of Brexit Britain, and accusing EU migrants of ‘jumping the queue’. The PM should have been mustering a broad coalition behind her deal; instead, she allowed her ruptured party to turn against itself – kicking the can down the road to preserve her spot at the dispatch box.
That is not duty. It is self-preservation.
Ironically, her deal unites Parliament in their opposition. For now, May has secured the backing of her party, but she has made clear she no longer commands a majority in the Commons. The DUP holds her to ransom, declaring that it won’t no-confidence her but also refusing to support the deal. Gridlock reigns and uncertainty pervades. Sterling is unstable, businesses are begging for clarity, and people are fed up.
It is no surprise that the PM was facing defeat on an historic scale considering the empty rhetoric and tin-eared approach of her leadership. Her attempt to play her own MPs off against each other has left her alone. The time for ‘can kicking’ is drawing to a close: she is reaching the end of the road. If May has a sense of duty, she would recognise that we cannot continue on this path – already, she has fractured parliament, further entrenched an already divided country, and introduced further poison into the discourse surrounding immigration.
Our PM has a responsibility to take leadership, a duty to find a route through this chaos of her making. Her diplomatic blitz around Europe has left her with nothing but a ‘better interpretation’ and ‘clarification’ on the backstop, while the Withdrawal Agreement is absolutely ‘non-negotiable’. This leaves her deal with unenforceable political changes on the fringes of a legally binding text. Nothing has changed.
The spasmodic Tory psychodrama over her leadership laid bare that her party doesn’t want a general election, at least not with her at the helm. This leaves three options: no-deal, Norway, or a referendum. Since the failure of the ERG to topple the PM proves there is no majority for no-deal, and Norway won’t let us join their club, that leaves a referendum.
By allowing the country to choose between the deal we have now and the deal that May has dragged onto the table, Parliament will gain the informed consent of the people (a litmus test for democracy) to proceed. The PM has a duty to check that this is the deal people wanted, while ending the parliamentary stalemate she created. If MPs can’t decide, let the people. Stubbornly trying to push her deal through Parliament under the blackmail of no deal just won’t work anymore: MPs aren’t buying it.
It’s time for May to put her sense of duty to the test. Her dogged determination can never beat reality. It’s time to drop the no deal scaremongering and let the people decide between the only options that can be delivered. It might just rescue her leadership, her party, and her country.
• Murray Hawthorne is the director of university campaigns at Our Future, Our Choice.