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The Brexit Curse

The Brexit Curse
Theresa May announces outside 10 Downing Street that she will quit on June 7/Photo: UNI

Above: Theresa May announces outside 10 Downing Street that she will quit on June 7/Photo: UNI

Britain saw three years of turbulence under prime minister Theresa May and when she was eventually forced to resign in the middle of her term over Brexit, the country heaved a sigh of relief

By Sajeda Momin in London

At the end of a tumultuous three years as prime minister of Great Britain, Theresa May has finally been pressured into stepping down, drawing her premiership to a close.

May, the country’s second female prime minister, cried as she made the announcement in front of 10 Downing Street just like her only other woman counterpart, Margaret Thatcher, had done when she left office in 1990. Both May and Thatcher were stabbed in the back by their own party leaders and forced to relinquish their position in the middle of their terms.

With her voice breaking, May announced that she would step aside as Conservative Party leader on June 7 and would leave “with no ill will, but with enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love”. Though she accepted that it was “the honour of my life” to serve as prime minister, May admitted that “it is and will always remain a matter of deep regret to me that I have not been able to deliver Brexit”.

Ironically, it was the disastrous Brexit referendum that catapulted May, then UK’s home secretary, to the top post in 2016 and it is the same Brexit which brought her down. She had been given the task of reconciling a country divided by the shocking result of the referendum to leave the European Union. May not only couldn’t manage to unite the nation, but also failed to negotiate an exit from the EU.

When Prime Minister David Cameron suddenly announced his resignation immediately after the Brexit vote, May was certainly not the frontrunner to take up the mantle. In fact, she had been on the side favouring staying in the EU before the referendum. Boris Johnson, former mayor of London and chief of the Leave campaign, was tipped to take over from Cameron, but in the final hour, he was stabbed in the back by his own deputy Michael Gove. As all contenders for the top post fell like nine pins due to their own ambitions, May emerged as the only sober leader who could head the country at a critical juncture.

Despite being a Remainer, May took up the challenge to “implement the people’s verdict” with a grim determination that surprised and ultimately alienated even her closest supporters. Conducting the Brexit negotiations by herself with just a tight circle of advisers, she ignored elected colleagues. Her Brexit vision was “harder” then, but was initially lapped up by the Brexiteers.

Thinking she was on a strong wicket, May sprang a snap general election in 2017, wanting to strengthen her position by becoming an elected prime minister in her own right. However, this turned out to be a terrible decision with the Tory Party losing its majority in Parliament. In order to form a government, May had to take the support of the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. This weakened her position both nationally as well as in her own party.

Even so, Brexit negotiations continued slowly and largely in secret. Cabinet members, coalition partners and the public were updated periodically and often did not like what they saw when it finally emerged. May saw simmering discontent against her but she ignored it, hoping it would go away. Instead, it created a string of crises that eroded her authority further.

The revolt occurred in July 2018 when May locked in her ministers in Chequers, the prime minister’s official home in the countryside, for a full day and told them to sign her free trade plan. As soon as they were let out, Brexit secretary David Davis resigned. Within hours, he was followed by foreign secretary Boris Johnson who criticised May’s plan, saying it would convert Britain into the “status of a colony”. Two more cabinet ministers followed suit.

By December, it was clear that there was no majority in Parliament for May’s deal. A third of her parliamentary party and half the back benchers were against her. Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the Conservative Party’s 1922 Committee, received the requisite letters needed to force a vote of confidence in May’s leadership. She offered to resign at some indeterminate point before the general election of 2022, managing to stave off the inevitable for some more time. However, she failed to change course and continued as if the no-confidence vote had never taken place.

In January this year, May’s Brexit deal was finally debated in the House of Commons and it was defeated by an extraordinary 230 votes—the worst defeat for a government in modern times with 118 Conservative MPs voting against their own prime minister. Two more months of mostly inconclusive talks with the EU followed, with many feeling that May was simply whiling away the time waiting for the March 29 Brexit deadline, and forcing MPs to agree to the deal she had negotiated.

Without changing her Brexit deal, May braved a second vote in Parliament on March 12, but was again defeated, this time by 149 votes. By now, May’s authority had totally collapsed. Cabinet discipline had come to an end, and would-be successors started to jostle for position. May lost a third Brexit vote by 344 to 286, unable to win round Tory hardliners or Labour supporters. She conceded that her premiership would soon end.

The leadership race to replace May will kick off on June 10 and there are already more than a dozen senior Tory figures planning to contest. Both Johnson and Gove, original Brexiteers and May’s opponents from the start, have thrown their hats into the ring. Other cabinet ministers, including Pakistani-origin home secretary Sajid Javid, are contenders.

The out and out favourite is Johnson with a poll undertaken by The Times suggesting that he is popular with 39 percent of Tory grassroots, making it hard for MPs not to make him one of the final two contenders. If Johnson does become Britain’s next prime minister, then politics will have come a full circle as it was he who was tipped to take over from Cameron three years ago and not May.

Whatever happens, Brexit is likely to dominate the Conservative Party’s succession race with time increasingly tight for a fresh team to set any new direction before the October 31 deadline for Britain’s departure from the EU.