May Leaves, But Brexit Remains

Theresa May has played a fiendishly difficult hand very badly, but a Conservative leadership contest will solve nothing.

Expert comment Updated 30 May 2019 Published 24 May 2019 3 minute READ

Thomas Raines

Former Director, Europe Programme

Theresa May announces her resignation outside 10 Downing Street. Photo: Getty Images.

Theresa May announces her resignation outside 10 Downing Street. Photo: Getty Images.

‘Please do not waste this time.’ When EU leaders agreed to extend negotiations with the UK back in April, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, cautioned exhausted British parliamentarians to refocus on finding a way forward. Six weeks later and with European elections conducted, Britain is leaderless and Brexit is adrift. October will be here in no time.

Theresa May was dealt a hand that was nearly impossible to play well, but in the event, she played it very badly. Perhaps the most significant error was to trigger the Article 50 negotiations in March 2017 at a time when the planning and preparation was still getting into gear, and without a workable consensus within her cabinet, party or Parliament. The government didn’t produce a developed vision for the UK’s future relationships until July 2018.

The undeniable political pressure – both domestically and from the EU – to give away control of the timeline of the process should have been resisted for longer. This was then compounded by the calamitous June 2017 general election result, leaving her government too weak for the monumental task ahead, while the clock kept ticking.

She became trapped by her own rhetoric and her dismal efforts to manage public expectations, sticking resolutely for months to hollow epithets, none more so than ‘No Deal is better than a bad deal’ – a strategy that has served to push many Eurosceptics to support the hardest and most drastic form of Brexit. It has helped to create a purity test for Brexit that a negotiated agreement with the EU could never deliver.

Her strategy of seeking to deliver Brexit solely on Conservative and Democratic Unionist Party votes was flawed, a misreading of the mood and maths of parliament. The Eurosceptics have pushed her at every turn, and – even when faced with the possibility of Brexit being derailed – have been unwilling to compromise in sufficient numbers to get her deal over the line.

Her pivot to a more inclusive, cross-party approach came too late and appeared cynical. The political incentives for the Labour leadership to co-own Brexit were not there. She never created a political space for Brexit that those from other parties could safely inhabit.

But for all her faults, the limitations of the Withdrawal Agreement reflect the constraints and complexities of leaving the EU. It is notable that the shorthand for the Withdrawal Agreement has frequently been ‘May’s Deal’. This serves to personalize what is more the product of a structural constraints than individual failings.

The UK is a multi-national state, with a unique constitutional arrangement in Northern Ireland intimately related to the conditions of EU membership. That necessarily places constraints on how it can leave without putting its own constitutional order at risk.

The Irish border has been the graveyard of Eurosceptic dreams. Brexit supporters have been far too cavalier about the issue from the outset. Too many still fail to face the technical realities, hiding behind aspirations and untested technology.

The process has also made clear what many saw from the outset: the EU is the stronger side in these negotiations. It is the larger economy. It knows what it wants (in this phase at least). It is less exposed to the worst effects of a crash out. It has dictated the form and pace of negotiations from the outset. The EU took a tough line in its strict approach to sequencing, a calculated risk that strengthened its position, but made agreement more difficult. Britain meanwhile is the demandeur, with unclear demands.

Still, an agreement was eventually reached. After the June 2017 election crippled her government, it seemed that May’s role was to be a political human sacrifice, ordained to get the first stage of Brexit over the line and then be dispensed with by her party. That no doubt appealed to others eyeing the role of PM: shortcomings, trade-offs and difficulties could be blamed on May when a new leader rode into Number 10 to guide the second phase of the negotiations.

But by failing to break the stalemate on the Withdrawal Agreement, the next prime minster will face the same problems that Theresa May did. The Conservative Party will still not have a majority. Parliament will still be split between as well as along party lines. The same Withdrawal Agreement will still be on the table.

The conventional wisdom is that a Brexiter will win the contest. That would seem to reflect the preferences of the approximately 125,000 members of the Conservative party – more Eurosceptic and more socially conservative than the average Conservative voter let alone your average Brit – who will select the next Prime Minister.

A true believer may be better placed to make compromises. But it is hard to see how the frontrunners Boris Johnson or Dominic Raab – or even more moderate figures like Jeremy Hunt – can win the contest on the basis that they will deliver the same agreement that sank Theresa May. Most likely, the winner will claim they will reopen the negotiations to address the Irish backstop, and aggressively prepare for No Deal should that strategy fail.

From the EU’s perspective however, the negotiations are over, and a Brexiter like Boris Johnson, with a reputation on the continent for mendacity and duplicity, is unlikely to be placated with concessions that were not offered to May. Indeed, it will be difficult to secure an extension in October with Johnson or Raab as PM. The calculation for the EU will change with a hard Eurosceptic in charge.

A Eurosceptic will also face resistance from Parliament and many in their own party – which is why a general election seems inevitable at some point this year. That may be the only grounds on which an extension in October may be granted.

Such an election may end up as a de facto contest of Leave vs Remain. Surveys suggest that voters now identify more as Leavers or Remainers than they do with any particular party. The party system shows signs of re-aligning more directly to reflect this Leave–Remain axis, as the European elections are likely to reveal. Even though the Labour leadership is resisting it, it may well need to commit to a confirmatory vote in a general election, paving the way for a re-run referendum, presumably between a ‘Labour deal’ (similar to the current one) and Remain.

A new Conservative leader may therefore accelerate the division between hard Leavers and ‘revoke’ Remainers. Conversely, in the current Parliament, the only form of Brexit that would seem to stand a chance of finding a majority is a soft Brexit of some variety. But perhaps the best chance of that may have gone with Theresa May.