STEVE RICHARDS delivers the political obituary for a calamitous premiership, the dire consequences of which are yet to be fully felt.
Theresa May has almost announced her departure date, but not quite. The evasiveness is typical. Under May’s leadership no-one has ever been precisely sure what would happen next. What would follow if her Brexit deal was defeated in the Commons? What would happen if the deal was defeated for a second and third time? What would occur if Brexit secretaries resigned one after another? In each case nothing much happened, only an accumulative sense of doom.
In truth, May was doomed from the beginning. She arrived in Number 10 ill-equipped for the mountainous task ahead – and her deep flaws have since played their vivid part in her fall. But any incoming prime minister would have struggled hopelessly from the summer of 2016 after the Brexit referendum. May’s successor is likely to prove the point. When it comes to delivering Brexit there is no clear or easy path through. When May is gone we will continue to wonder what the hell will happen next.
May came to realise gradually that there were impossible obstacles in her way. At first she assumed that there was a primrose path towards Brexit. With an uncharacteristic swagger she spoke in her early phase as if the UK could have its cake and eat it. In addition she hoped to preside over historic domestic reforms as well, an early indication of her naive assumption that there would be much space for non-Brexit matters.
It all seems like ancient history now but after her arrival in Downing Street ardent Brexit supporters were assigned the departments responsible for securing the UK’s departure from the EU. David Davis (Brexit secretary), Liam Fox (international trade secretary) and Boris Johnson (at the Foreign Office), with their giddying proclamations of how easy it was going to be, were the Brexit trio. Amber Rudd (at the Home Office), Greg Clark (business secretary) and Damian Green (work and pensions secretary) would begin May’s domestic overhaul. This was the fantasy at the beginning. Brexit would be only one part of May’s revolution.
She moved so fast on Brexit, this supposedly cautious and dutiful prime minister. By the autumn of 2016 May had declared or implied that the UK would leave the single market and the customs union, no longer be under the jurisdiction of the European Court and would not accept free movement.
At the same time she pledged to trigger Article 50 by the end of the following March. Meanwhile she insisted that the Withdrawal Agreement and the UK’s future relationship with the EU could both be agreed within two years. Although she looked forward to new trade deals as a newly-independent country she was confident that the UK would enjoy trading arrangements with the EU similar to those that membership bestowed.
For a publicly shy and reticent prime minister, her speedily assembled Brexit policy was the equivalent of a rowdy night out on the town. In effect she was proclaiming loudly that the UK could get what it wanted when it wanted.
How easy it is to forget the expressions of outrage from May and her senior ministers when the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, published an article in the summer of 2017 arguing for a transitional phase after the UK had formally left the UK. The Number 10 machine went for another fleeting night out on the town in response. Starmer was accused of being weak-kneed and not up for Brexit. This bout of swaggering assertiveness from Number 10 was fleeting because May soon realised that the government would need to seek a transitional phase, although May laughably called it an ‘implementation’ period. At this point she was still claiming all would be negotiated by March 2019, the Withdrawal Agreement and the trade deal.
Two questions arise from a look back at her early days as prime minister. Why did she act in this way, a politician whose only previous misadventure was a run through a wheat field? Now she was racing towards a hardish Brexit. The second question is equally important. When did she begin to realise that delivering Brexit without threatening the economy and peace in Northern Ireland was much more complicated than the early swagger suggested? The answers shine much light, obviously on May, but also on the Conservative party, the demands of leadership more widely and above all how impossibly challenging the issue of Brexit is, and would be for any prime minister.
In an interview for a recent BBC series, her former joint chief of staff, Nick Timothy, told me that May’s often repeated phrase “Brexit means Brexit” was supposed to be reassuring rather than defiant, at least reassuring to her Brexit-seeking party. Timothy invented the phrase for May. Her robotic repetition of it meant that it was mocked. The original intention, though, is revealing.
As a Remain-voting prime minister May wanted to reassure her party that she would deliver Brexit. This was her early motivation, not an in-depth review of what Brexit might mean but speedy acts of reassurance to her party. Timothy told me on most aspects of Brexit May had no strong feelings, but she was a true believer in ending free movement. On this she spoke with conviction and in doing so she knew the UK would have to leave the single market.
May is suspicious of most of her political colleagues, with good cause. But when she detects loyalty from ministers she can trust too much. Liam Fox convinced her that glorious trade deals awaited an independent UK. In giving him a new department to seek embryonic new trading arrangements she was moving the UK out of the customs union.
She also chose to believe her new Brexit secretary David Davis that the EU’s negotiating position would soon crumble as German car manufacturers and others demanded that access to the UK markets remained more or less the same. So off she went, a prime minister who had never given deep consideration to what Brexit meant, inheriting a referendum result for which Whitehall had made no preparation.
Here is a key part of the explanation for the early phase. May had been home secretary, cocooned from much EU-related policy making, beyond security issues for which the UK was held in uncomplicated esteem by much of the EU. She had not expected David Cameron to lose the referendum and assumed that he would stay on if he did. When Cameron resigned, Boris Johnson was favourite to succeed. Within a fortnight she was the prime minister. In terms of preparing for Brexit, its multi-layered complexities, this was the equivalent of playing tennis in a park and then being propelled on the centre court at Wimbledon. She was not remotely prepared for the task ahead. She had always wanted to be prime minister but had not expected to be in the post in July 2016.
Immediately, the internal dynamics of the Conservative party kicked in, as they always do on Europe. She felt the need to please her hardliners. This is what Tory leaders do. They seek to appease their tormentors and in doing so move towards their dark fate. Although she moved towards Brexit with a speedy recklessness it was not fast enough for some of her MPs. “Why hasn’t she triggered Article 50?” Sir Bernard Jenkin asked on the Today programme in August 2016? She soon did.
During this early phase May committed a fatal error. She acted weakly when she was politically strong. May had an authority-enhancing political honeymoon when she was way ahead in the polls. Many assumed she would be prime minister for a decade at least, a perception that feeds on itself.
In those early months May had the authority to tell her party some hard truths about Brexit, the difficult choices, the costs of going one way rather than another. She did not do so. She fuelled the myth that the UK could have its cake and eat it.
When she discovered there was no cake-eating option available she was weak politically, having lost her majority in the calamitous early election, a pivotal moment in the decline of May.
After the election in the summer of 2017 Damian Green became May’s unofficial deputy. He told me in an interview that the Irish question had barely featured in ministerial Brexit discussions, joking that it would be more likely to come up in a pub quiz. Soon, the question moved centre stage.
By the end of the year May had signed up to phase one of the withdrawal sequence, with both sides committed to a soft border in Ireland. How to maintain the soft border with the UK planning to leaving the customs union? There was no clear answer to the question and May almost knew it. Ultimately she agreed to the backstop whereby the UK remained in the customs union until both sides could see an alternative way through.
May’s deal was her attempt at leaving the EU. The future relationship was still to be resolved. She should have recognised that she was in trouble when she made a statement on her plans in the Commons last November. For an hour not a single MP gave it support. A few minutes before she delivered that statement her latest Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, had resigned. After such a traumatic sequence most prime ministers would be in a state of strategic frenzy. The questions and proclamations in Number Ten would have been intense. Help! How to we build a new coalition of support? Get me Peter! Get me George! A sense of urgent intensity would have shaped the responses of a Blair, Brown or Cameron.
In this respect May was unique. As crises erupted around her she stepped aside from them and carried on as if she was separate from the epic drama. One of her advisers told me that he watched her statement on the Brexit deal with growing alarm only to find that May was calm when she returned to Number 10. She had more work to do and got on with it.
She had the same approach as every crisis broke. When Tory MPs called a vote of confidence in her leadership she continued almost as if they were contemplating the future of someone else. When she lost parliamentary votes on her deal she brought the same plans back as if they had not been defeated by wide margins weeks before. Even now she has avoided giving a precise timetable for her departure. She wants to press on until the next intimidating obstacle steps in her way.
Her crude method of seeking parliamentary assent arose because May lacked the capacity to deploy language as a political weapon. She offered no memorable phrases to make her deal seem compelling or accessible. She could not persuade. Here is a very big lesson from the May leadership. Being a political teacher is not an optional extra, but an essential qualification of leadership.
The long-serving prime ministers, Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair were political teachers in their very different ways. They sought constantly to make sense of what they were doing. May clung to a few misjudged phrases. She was “strong and stable” and “Brexit meant Brexit”. After the 2017 election she lacked language and had lost the authority-enhancing perception that she would be around for years to come.
By then, if she had announced a Brexit deal where the UK ruled the world as an independent country while enjoying all the benefits of EU membership she would have faced defeat in parliament. The parliamentary defeats were partly a vote against her.
Crucially, they were only partly about her. We will come to see the May premiership in a more benevolent light when her successor struggles with Brexit in ways that she did. She did not fail because she was too weak in the negotiation with the EU. If she had been Trump-like in her demeanour the EU would have held its ground.
The next prime minister might seek a no-deal with a robust machismo only to discover that he or she alienates businesses even more and that a no-deal would not command a majority in the Commons or the wider electorate. Then there is the Irish question and the Scottish one too. Nicola Sturgeon watches the chaos at Westminster on an hourly basis hoping to leap towards another referendum on independence.
May was a weak leader, but a titan would struggle with Brexit. She will be the fourth successive Conservative prime minister to fall over Europe. The chances of a fifth falling over the same issue are absurdly high.
Steve Richards’ next book Reflections on Leadership: Modern Prime Ministers From Wilson to May is published in September