By Erik Sass, TES Editor-in-Chief
In so many ways, Theresa May’s tearful final departure as UK prime minister is classic Brexit: long expected but long delayed, it is a dramatic event that changes nothing, an emotional milestone marking progress to nowhere, a final statement that only serves to raise more questions.
Above all it was a human moment for May – also long delayed, many commentators noted, quick to remind readers and viewers of her nickname, “Maybot,” reflecting her allegedly robotic exterior affect. Whether robotic or not, May undoubtedly suffered a communications deficit that ultimately overwhelmed both her sense of duty and her apparently endless capacity to endure humiliation.
At first May’s doggedness in the face of a task many call impossible won her sympathy from allies and foes alike, both in London and Brussels. Undoubtedly, as loss followed loss May’s character shone through, including the admirable (and very English) qualities of determination, humility, hard work and perseverance. But these proved insufficient to deliver Brexit, the sole focus of May’s government, as her sense of duty soon ran afoul of the treacherous shoals of contemporary British politics.
Worse the former Home Secretary was stymied from the beginning by her own stubborn insularity – invoking less flattering national stereotypes – as typified by the early ascendancy of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, her longtime political aides and fixers from her Home Secretary days, who tightly controlled access to May, and with it the government’s agenda, until their defenestration following the disastrous Conservative electoral defeat they helped precipitate in 2017 (which critically forced May to rely on the Democratic Unionist Party for support in Parliament).
Although Timothy and Hill got the axe, the events encapsulated fundamental flaws of May’s character and government that set the tone and drove it to its doom: deaf to outside advice, plowing ahead with vote after vote on Brexit before an increasingly enraged and divided Parliament and populace, as if committed to her own political self-immolation through the democratic process.
It was fascinating, if pitiful, to literally (figuratively) see political authority evaporate before one’s eyes – the perfectly reasonable self-annihilation of an increasingly desperate and enigmatic individual, all conducted in orderly enough fashion, with deadlines, letters, and reports. Only her obsession with “delivering” Brexit “on time” – as if it were a parcel, no doubt neatly wrapped and labeled, rather than a lengthy process involving a series of complex adjustments – could explain May’s otherwise mystifying decision to fritter away her remaining political capital with repeated votes on aggressive deadlines.
In the end, or somewhere near the tortuous closing stages of the drama, she gave a two-fingered salute to her own side with her belated, totally unprincipled offer to negotiate with Labour’s Trotskyite supremo, Jeremy Corbyn. Was it a gambit to split Labour or force Corbyn into sharing responsibility for whatever completely unsatisfactory compromise would be required in the end? Was it a feint to scare wavering Tories back into line or quiet the European Research Group? Not that the answers matter anymore, but they all seem to have been “no”: she really just was out of ideas.
And here again the ellipse of political judgment arcs outward again, as British voters and legislators must face, again, the unchanged political landscape that remains after May’s departure. Because whatever May’s failures in consultation or tone, personality or process, these were always superficial elements in the diplomatic and legislative chemistry that has produced the Brexit mess.
No question, May’s stiff-necked approach didn’t help matters; surely a genial personality and open, collaborative mindset will make for a more successful politician. But a politician’s reputation for narrow-minded unapproachability can hardly be blamed for the fact that the UK political scene currently appears to be divided into at least three major factions, none enjoying a popular or Parliamentary majority and none willing to compromise, overlapping with and simultaneously undermining the two dominant parties.
May failed spectacularly and in her own fashion, but also because she was fated to. What fresh political winds can Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt or Jeremy Corbyn – or any of the dozens of other contenders for that matter – possibly summon to move the British ship of state, adrift and imperiled? Is there a little political magic left somewhere in the sceptered isle? The world can only wait and hope.
Erik Sass is editor-in-chief of The Economic Standard.