Following the government’s catastrophic defeat in the House of Commons the UK prime minister, Theresa May, is coming under enormous criticism for her handling of the Brexit withdrawal agreement. Some people may even be inclined to consider her as a candidate for the worst prime minister ever.
Such a judgement would be unfair. It also massively exaggerates the freedom for manoeuvre she has had over Brexit.
At risk of over-simplifying, political leaders can be judged on the basis of both their goals and style. May is being damned on both grounds.
In terms of goals, May’s withdrawal agreement satisfies nobody because, when it comes to Brexit, only “pure” positions are truly satisfactory. For the hardest of Brexiteers, who wish to get out of the European Union without a deal, anything other than a swift, clean break will be a failure. For overt and covert Remainers, anything that results in leaving the European Union will be a failure.
However clumsily or stubbornly May has pursued her withdrawal agreement, she is doomed to be damned, at least in the short term, since she is seeking a middle way.
It is worth pausing to consider the middle way she is pursuing. May seemed to interpret the 2016 referendum result as a backlash against uncontrolled immigration as much as a rejection of the EU. This interpretation was not wholly unreasonable. While the vote for Brexit was far more complicated than that, there was no doubting the unease that many voters felt for the high levels of apparently uncontrolled immigration.
In seeking to address this unease by ending free movement of labour, May was trying to respond to voters’ concerns. At the same time, she was also trying to lessen the economic and financial downside that almost everyone predicts will come from leaving the European Union.
May’s withdrawal agreement was thus trying to be both responsive and responsible. She does not deserve to be pilloried for trying to balance these divergent if not contradictory considerations.
Was consensus ever really possible?
Now we come to May’s style of leadership, and how she has gone about trying to secure passage of the withdrawal agreement.
Many of May’s traits that are now negatively valued were positively valued back in June 2016, when she entered the race to succeed David Cameron. She wasn’t showy, nor was she clubbable. She was stubborn, dogged and committed to delivering what was asked of her. In the chaotic aftermath of the referendum, many were doubtless relieved that the government would now be led by a goal-oriented prime minister.
May’s approach was to press ahead at full speed – insisting that “Brexit means Brexit” – and try to railroad the departure through parliament. Unfortunately, from her point of view, she lacked a sufficiently robust parliamentary majority to act in this way. So, she promptly called a snap election once she had secured legislative assent and notified the EU of Britain’s intention to commence withdrawal negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.
Had the 2017 general election campaign been shorter, and had the voting system – Britain’s other national lottery —- translated her party’s vote share differently, May’s fortunes might have been very different. One esteemed political scientist, who shall go nameless, declared May a “strategic genius” in the immediate wake of her triggering the election.
As we all know, May was certainly not a campaigning genius. The result was a minority government and very, very little room for parliamentary manoeuvre.
At this point, as some seem to argue, May should have changed direction and sought to build a consensus around Brexit. But let us consider the plausibility of this alternative timeline.
First, she would have been unable to govern if the hard Brexiteers on her own benches had suspected there was going to be a very soft Brexit. They would almost certainly have withheld their votes on some matters and probably brought forward a no-confidence vote in her leadership.
This point applies equally to the period immediately after the referendum when May still enjoyed a parliamentary majority. Indeed, it is doubtful that she (or anyone else) would have been elected Tory leader in July 2016 had she (or they) espoused compromise from the start. It was not what the party wanted. And, of course, over on the Labour benches, Jeremy Corbyn was facing a leadership challenge from Owen Smith. What kind of leader would have reached out to the opposing side when their own position was under threat?
Second, she would have alienated many in her party still further had there been any talk of close cooperation with Labour. To paraphrase Disraeli, England does not love compromise. But it does love adversarialism. Most politicians are tribal.
Third, all of this assumes that the Labour Party, or even a substantial number of Labour MPs, would have been open to cooperation with the government. This assumption is questionable. It is extremely unlikely that Corbyn, or his activist base, would have welcomed the chance to cooperate with the Tories on Brexit (or anything). Most Labour MPs would not have done either. In Britain, the buck stops with Her Majesty’s Government. The government is in power – ergo, the government is responsible. This mantra is fundamental to the British political culture.
Fourth – and going further – any kind of close cross-party cooperation on Brexit would probably have precluded single-party government on other matters and necessitated some sort of national government to underpin it. But there was as much appetite for a national government in the Commons in July 2016 after Cameron left and in June 2017 after the election debacle as there has been for the withdrawal agreement in January 2019.
Those who say with hindsight that May should have proceeded by consensus are greatly exaggerating the possibility that she could have done so successfully. The trouble she is now in is not wholly of her making. It is fairer to attribute her troubles to her predecessor, David Cameron. It was his call to hold the referendum. It was his decision to leave this massive mess for someone else to clear up. He was a worse prime minister.
Put more positively, all premierships are massively constrained by the immediate political context. The nature of the Brexit issue, coupled with deeply ingrained adversarialism at Westminster and the latent preference among many MPs to find a way around the referendum result, made May’s task extraordinarily difficult. Time will tell if it proves to be impossible. If anything, May deserves credit for having survived in office for so long in pursuit of compromise.