Theresa May: A political tragedy

May 31, 2019 10:43
Theresa May announces her resignation in an emotional speech outside Number 10 Downing Street in London on May 24. Photo: Reuters

“All political lives”, said Enoch Powell, “unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and human affairs”. Anyone watching the emotional resignation speech of the British prime minister, Theresa May, will have recalled those words. Having finally admitted defeat, in her three-year battle to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union, she had no option but to announce that she was leaving.

She is, however, in good company. Her three Conservative Party predecessors, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron, all lost power because of divisions over Europe. Although May, during the referendum campaign in 2016, was a low-key supporter of remaining in the EU, she quickly changed tack once 17.4 million people voted to leave, and emerged as the prime minister who would deliver Brexit.

In an attempt to convince people that she was genuine, she morphed into a fanatical Brexiteer. Some of her slogans, including “Brexit means Brexit”, “no deal is better than a bad deal” and “there can be no turning back”, have even entered the national lexicon. She announced 108 times that, as the European Withdrawal Act 2018 stipulated, the UK would leave the EU on March 29, 2019, only to renege on this twice, shifting it first to April 12, and then to October 31, the current departure date.

Many people, however, were unhappy with the deal May negotiated with the European Union, albeit for different reasons. She agreed a huge divorce settlement of 39 billion pounds, and was even prepared, because of the Irish backstop, designed to keep the Irish border open after Brexit, to tie Britain into the EU’s customs union in perpetuity, without any say on its operation. This would not only have undermined Britain’s ability to trade freely, but also have resulted in separate trading agreements for Northern Ireland, which many found abhorrent.

It surprised nobody when, in January, the House of Commons rejected May’s “meaningful vote” on her withdrawal bill, by 432 votes to 202, though the size of the majority amazed even seasoned observers. After the EU made clear it would not renegotiate the deal, May re-packaged her bill and presented it for two more votes, but with the same outcome each time.

Undaunted, May then announced a “bold, new offer” to parliamentarians, and revealed plans for a fourth vote, to be held in early June. This time, however, she proposed concessions to those who opposed leaving the EU at all, and this triggered her demise. Although by then living on borrowed time, May indicated she was now prepared to allow a vote on a second referendum, which was greeted with fury by many in her party, for good reason. It played directly into the hands of those who had refused to accept the decision taken in 2016, and who were determined to do whatever they could to stop Brexit occurring.

What made matters worse, May’s concession delighted the EU, which could not believe its luck. Whenever confronted with popular decisions it does not like, the EU’s familiar tactic has invariably been to seek a re-run. After suitable pressures have been applied, and sweeteners promised, voters are told to think again, and return next time with the “correct” decision. When Denmark, for example, rejected the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, people were told they had to vote again to approve it. Again, when Ireland rejected the Nice Treaty in 2001, the same thing happened.

Sometimes, however, when second votes are not feasible, the EU resorts to outright subterfuge to get its way. When, for example, the French and Dutch electorates rejected the European Constitution in 2005, the EU decided that the best way to outflank them was cosmetically, by simply giving it a new name. The proposed constitution was therefore repackaged as the Lisbon Treaty, which the EU was able to bring into force at the governmental level, without any need for further popular votes in either France or the Netherlands.

Of course, if the EU is happy with the first vote, that is it, and there is never any question of consulting people again. It was horrified, therefore, when May’s predecessor, David Cameron, had the temerity to ask his electorate if they still wished, 41 years after their first vote in 1975, to remain in the EU. Having seen the outcome, the EU will do all it possibly can to ensure no other member state ever dares to follows suit, which explains the awful deal it gave May.

As its track record shows, the EU is not so much undemocratic as anti-democratic, only prepared to tolerate democracy on its own terms. By her concession, May played right into its hands.

It was, of course, the EU’s democratic deficit which led so many people in Britain to vote to leave the bloc in the first place. Once May, albeit in desperation, announced that she was prepared to countenance a second vote, she signed her own death warrant. Whatever was left of her credibility immediately evaporated, and she had to go.

May’s failure led directly to the triumph of Nigel Farages’s Brexit Party in the EU elections. Her Conservative Party had its worst ever election result, and faces meltdown. Trust has been lost not only in May’s own party, but also in the body politic, and this must be corrected. What the UK now needs, therefore, is a leader who will not be steamrollered by the EU and its proxies, and who will deliver on Brexit by October 31, deal or no deal. Step forward, Boris Johnson.

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Leave Means Leave Ambassador Hong Kong