The most frustrating thing about Theresa May must be the way she handled questions during interviews and PMQs. It was almost like she was a robot that gave pre-programmed answers regardless of the input.
Phrases such as “deliver on the results of the referendum” or “take back control”- and who can forget “strong and stable” which has its own Wikipedia page.
As a leader May’s mistakes were many. It’s debatable whether the errors arose from the circumstances she was put into. The many impasses she created could well be due to her being, as a male Conservative party grandee described, a “bloody difficult woman”.
This is all forgivable, had the stubbornness been based on being right or having a very good reason, but often times many of us watching felt that she had committed to a position because and just because it was passed down to her by predecessors. She was a car stuck in the first gear and could never transition to the second, third, or even reverse if need be. This lack of nimbleness, this immovability has brought the UK to where it is today – massive economic uncertainty and a political stasis.
Undoubtedly, Theresa May felt very proud to have fallen into the role of the second female Prime Minister, with hopes to even outshine Thatcher’s legacy. Reportedly, when at Oxford, she was not pleased upon discovering Thatcher had become the PM because she herself wanted to be the first.
From the very beginning May had wanted to give the impression of a strong leader. Strong words soon accompanied this aspiration such as “Brexit means Brexit” and she told her cabinet that “politics is not a game”. Regrettably, May continued to adopt this clumsy posturing well into her Brexit negotiations.
On 29th March 2017, disregarding prudence, absent of due diligence and against expert counsel May rushed a letter to Donald Tusk triggering the article 50 to begin the Brexit process – complete with a veiled threat of withdrawing security cooperation should the EU27 fail to deliver on a trade agreement. Such was the unwise show of strength made by May and her advisors. This kind of thinking permeated her whole leadership. She mistook inflexibility for strength and knee-jerk reactions for decisiveness. In justifying these actions she skirted hard truths and practical realities, trying to convince herself and others that this is “the will of the people”.
Red lines in the negotiations were drawn surprisingly early. In negotiations, there are normally two different types of red lines. One type is the condition you put on the negotiating table to extract as many concessions as you can while the other type is the condition based on existing circumstances you’re unable to change because it’s baked into your structure. The EU’s red lines were made with keeping the integrity of the Single Market in mind. The EU’s red lines were 1. sequencing, 2. the four freedoms covering persons, goods, services and capital and 3. that there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
At the time, it was assumed that the protection of rights of the UK citizens in the EU or respectively the EU citizens in the UK were more or less agreed. It was only a footnoted red line because of the assurances May gave and because the EU team believed that both parties understood it was the right and fair thing to do. Having said that, I’m sure that many still have May’s speech during her party conference ringing in their ears when she said, “But, if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.”
Perhaps May should have asked the EU citizens who lived here in the UK for over twenty years what they think about this statement or looked at the numbers of British people frantically tracing their Irish roots as to apply for an Irish passport and asked them what citizenship really means.
Michel Barnier helpfully drew his now famous staircase diagram, spelling out the freedoms and access for every increase in the number of red lines. Of all the UK’s red lines, ending freedom of movement became a priority borne perhaps from her previous position at the Home Office. Alas, it meant that the upper rungs of the staircase, a “very close and special relationship”, was not available to the UK.
Ending freedom of movement appeased the portion of British citizens who felt threatened by immigration numbers but at the same time angered many in businesses and academia who rely on immigration. We shall see what the long term effects of ending FoM will be on the viability of many business sectors as well as the prestige of British universities.
It was not an economically wise decision as the UK’s comparative advantage is overwhelmingly concentrated in services industries. For the financial sector, the loss of passporting means the loss of the UK’s status as a financial centre, including its ancillary services that are major drivers of UK GDP.
May seemed to be repeating the same act of miscalculating her odds, betting erroneously that her gamble would work and finding time and time again, that after the dust had settled down her gambit had landed her in even deeper waters.
As she became further and further mired within her red lines that should never have been, her statements became more and more canned and robotic. A similar rise of unsubstantiated opinions from questionable academics about which Brexit is best were dispersed to the public on the BBC and other supportive media.
Those who knew better tried to correct the misinformation but without the loudspeaker and active rubberstamping of the government, it was hard to reach the general public. Many still do not understand what they are asked to give up in return for “sovereignty and a proper Brexit”. Those sounding alarm bells are branded elitists who condescend and think that the people didn’t know what they voted for.
May steadfastly surrounded herself with people who would deliver the ultimate “take back control” and banished those who would counsel a balanced approach. Brexit secretaries came and went so frequently that people had trouble keeping track who was responsible for negotiations. Same with parliament – here is a list of cabinet resignations during her premiership.
It was nothing short of a shamble, a painful spectacle to watch as May dismantled UK’s global reputation as a competent, moderate government piece by piece. Her increasingly confusing stands and chaotic parliament opened up a door for stronger populism to spread through the country. A movement brandishing the promise of getting Brexit done, whatever it takes. A recent poll of the European election showed that the Brexit Party is leading. What this means for the future of the UK is frightening.
To her credit, May did eventually concede that her deal is flawed, claiming, “I would say don’t let the search for the perfect become the enemy of the good because the danger there is that we end up with no Brexit at all.” However, did she sufficiently spell out what these flaws are to the British people? Will the failure to educate the public on the issues of Brexit be held against her once she is long gone? Will future generations still be enduring the negative consequences of Brexit?
Although the biggest harm of May’s creation was to embolden the extreme Brexiteers in her party, perhaps the most significant service that she did for the country was to actually keep ‘No Deal’ at bay, despite her previous mantra of “No deal is better than a bad deal”. She could have taken the easy political route and walked away from negotiations and refused the multiple extensions. Deep down inside, she knew that a ‘No Deal’ would bring the UK to its knees and for this, she hedged and hummed and tried to ram “Theresa May’s Deal” not once, twice but three times through parliament. Thus in the end, this bloody difficult woman really did love her country after all.