More than two years after the EU referendum, people in the UK are no clearer about what Brexit is, what it will be, even if it will happen at all. The nation was divided and MPs seemed unable to coalesce around an agreement that would have commanded a majority. Theresa May faced a stark choice – party or nation.
Setting the Scene
This article looks back to Theresa May’s time in office and how she dealt with the Brexit conundrum. It analyses the events of the time and how she came to choose the interests of her party over that of the nation.
Theresa May continued to ask MPs for more time to find a compromise on the Irish Backstop whilst the EU continued to say no. In Parliament, MPs continued to plot amendments that would take no-deal off the table but they seemed unable to coalesce around a single position. Brexiteers were no pushing an increasingly hard Brexit.
Nothing had changed and what we were witnessing is a political charade. Theresa May claimed that she was listening and trying to find a compromise, both at home and with the EU but that was just part of the act. Ever since the comprehensive defeat of her Withdrawal Agreement, her strategy was to run the clock down and engage in a dangerous game of brinkmanship designed to make either her Brexiteers, the EU or opposition MPs blink.
Having followed the twists and turns of the Brexit saga it seems to me that it was utterly predictable that the UK would find itself in this position at this late stage in the process. Ever since the debacle of the 2017 election, the parliamentary arithmetic that resulted strongly suggested that there was no majority for no deal or a hard Brexit and a majority was there for a soft Brexit. However, that would have required the PM to stop listening to the Brexit wing of her party and do a deal with opposition MPs.
Yet even back then, it was obvious that this would probably split her party and that’s something the PM would never countenance. The PM went through the motions in trying to win over her Brexiteer backbenchers but, given the concessions she had made to EU on the red lines, winning over these self-styled ‘Spartans’ that seemed unlikely. I can only describe this as a ‘hail mary’ play, worth trying just in case, miraculously, it worked.
Post 2017 Election: The New Reality
So why do I argue this?
After the 2017 election, it must have become obvious to Theresa May that the chances of delivering the version of Brexit that she had laid out in her Lancaster House speech, were pretty slim. The arithmetic of the new parliament combined with the Irish border issue meant that the only realistic chance of securing a majority was to pivot to a softer form of Brexit. However, the implacability of Brexiteers simply reinforced the fact that such a move ran the serious risk of splitting her party. As a lifelong Tory and former party chairman, going down in history as the woman who split the Conservative Party is anathema.
If we rewind to the referendum result the Tories had a sufficient majority in parliament to push through a harder Brexit. The loss of that majority changed everything. Suddenly the closeness of the referendum result mattered and the parliamentary arithmetic meant that the only Brexit that could command a majority was a soft one. The election had a dramatic effect on the Tory party as well in that it strengthened the hand of the Brexit wing. She no longer had the numbers to ignore them and they and she knew it. She also knew that no deal would be an act of political vandalism but which way to turn – nation or party?
The end result was the political equivalent of a Mexican standoff. Rather than the usual two protagonists, this one was more like the one from the Good the Bad and Ugly, with everyone hoping everyone else will blink first. The PM hoped that everyone else would. Brexiteers believed that the EU would. The EU hoped the PM or Parliament would.
Those against no-deal kept hoping the PM would in the face of the potential damage of a no-deal. The threat of the economic damage that no deal posed to the German car industry, French cheesemakers and Italian Prosecco producers, never delivered the concessions that Brexiteers expected. The EU continued to argue protecting the single market was more important, much in the same way Brexiteers believed that an ideologically pure Brexit was worth the pain of no deal.
By this stage, Theresa May’s inflexibility became more and more evident. Despite the fact that her authority and her reputation were long gone, she still stuck to her strategy of trying to appease the increasingly demanding Brexiteer wing of her party. She still hoped that she could win the twin prizes of getting her deal through and keeping her beloved party together.
Solving Brexit: The Missed Opportunities
The only scenario that could have provided a solution to the Brexit crisis and was that Parliament could have made good on its threat to take over the process. Moderate MPs across Parliament were much less exercised about the Withdrawal Agreement than they were about securing the softest Brexit possible. If they had taken over, they would have been the future partnership with the EU that they would have focused on and it’s very likely that the EU would have been more than willing to accommodate them.
The end result would have been that the PM’s Withdrawal Agreement, or a version of it, would have got passed by Parliament and Theresa May would have been the PM that got Brexit done. She could have claimed that she tried her best to deliver the Brexit one wing of her party so desired but was thwarted by a hung parliament. She could have delivered Brexit and called the bluff of the ‘Spartans’. The fact that these same Spartans all fell in line with Boris Johnson’s renegotiated deal proves that their bluff was ready to be called.
If the national interest was her paramount concern then she would have taken a cross-party approach from the very beginning but the political charade we witnessed is proof that, for this PM, the party has always come first.