There can be few more thankless jobs in Europe, perhaps the world, at present than that of British prime minister. So Theresa May’s announcement that she is resigning as leader of the Conservative Party as soon as the State Visit of the US President and the commemoration of the D-Day landings are over, and will leave Downing Street just as soon as a successor is chosen, came as little surprise, either in the UK or further afield. It was less a question of if she was going to leave, than when.
She had been increasingly beleaguered since railroading the Brexit agreement through her Cabinet last summer – at the cost of several high-profile resignations - and then trying, and failing, to get it passed by Parliament. Through all this, she showed extraordinary, even heroic, determination, fending off criticism from all sides, and trying to tweak small details of the agreement in the hope of finally “delivering Brexit”.
Her chief problem, though, was that, while her “deal” may well have been the best deal that could be struck, not enough MPs – even in her own party – agreed. There were those who regarded the divorce terms as too harsh; those who saw the agreement as too “soft” (not a “real” Brexit), and those who – despite the 2016 referendum vote – still opposed any Brexit at all. With such variegated opposition, she was unable to achieve a majority in Parliament. When she argued, as she did repeatedly, that failure to vote for her “deal” risked the possibility of no Brexit at all, she was simply not believed by the most fervent Brexiteers.
With continuing stalemate in Parliament and increasing opposition from her own MPs, Mrs May finally had no choice but to resign. In so doing, she became just the latest Conservative Prime Minister to be defeated by the Europe question, following Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron before her.
For Mrs May, her enforced resignation after barely three years in office, is little short of a personal tragedy - as was evident from the emotion she showed at the end of her announcement. But she started out with two big disadvantages. The first was that she became prime minister by default – because the other candidates, chief among them Boris Johnson – decided in the end not to compete. This meant that, although an experienced minister, she was essentially untested before taking the top job. Her ill-advised decision to call an election in 2017 only made matters worse, because her Conservative Party lost the small overall majority it had had, which sowed the seeds for the parliamentary battles to come. The other was that, because she had campaigned for Remain before the referendum (though not with great enthusiasm), she was not trusted by those for whom leaving the EU had become their life’s cause.
The centrality of Brexit in terms of parliamentary time and priorities also left next to no time for the social agenda – housing, education, “fairness” –she had set when she came in to office. In my view, it is unjust to dismiss her – as some have done – as “the UK’s worst Prime Minister ever”. With both major parties split down the middle on Brexit,, life would have been extremely difficult for any prime minister taking over after the unexpected result of the referendum. But she was neither an inspirational nor an imaginative leader, indeed hardly a leader at all, at a time when those qualities were needed more than ever in recent times.
It would be unrealistic to believe, however, that Mrs May’s departure will speed the passage of Brexit through Parliament – or even decide the fate of Brexit definitively very soon. Whoever becomes the next Conservative leader, automatically becomes Prime Minister, without the need for a general election, and inherits the self-same Parliament. The ratio of “hard”, “soft” and “no” Brexit MPs will be no different, leaving the new Prime Minister with precisely the same problem as Mrs May faced.
Nor is there any hint that Brussels will alter its adamant opposition to re-opening the Brexit agreement, just because there is a new Prime Minister. The recent European Parliamentary elections have produced a parliament that will be more fractured among different parties, but – despite forecasts of a surge by far-right parties - its left-right balance and its majority for EU cohesion stays pretty much the same.
Perhaps the only surprise, given the seeming impossibility of the task, is how many Conservative MPs want to compete to be the next party leader. There are so far at least a dozen. They represent most strands of opinion on Brexit, though it is expected that, because ordinary party members are strongly in favour of Brexit and because it is they who ultimately elect the leader, only an enthusiatic Brexiteer will stand a chance. Why there should be so many is a mystery. One theory is that at least are just seeking to raise their public profile to advance their careers. Another is that at least one – former foreign secretary Boris Johnson – eyes his “Churchill” moment, saving the country at its darkest hour.
Among other contenders are Michael Gove, the environment secretary, who thwarted his own and Boris Johnson’s chances last time around, and, as an outsider, the development secretary, Rory Stewart. Whoever wins, however, the dilemma, and the options, remain essentially the same.
The first, and simplest, way forward would be if a new leader were able to convince the more fervent Brexiteers to accept the existing deal on the grounds that they really could “lose” the unique chance of Brexit otherwise. There could then be a smooth departure on the new date of 31 October, with negotiations with Brussels proceeding to their next stage.
Most candidates for the leadership, however, are talking tough, insisting that a “no deal” Brexit – has to be an option. They appear to be calculating either that this could extract concessions from Brussels (unlikely) or that a summary departure from the EU would be less disruptive than Mrs May and her government argued. The problem with raising the spectre of “no deal”, however, is that it has already been rejected by the UK Parliament – one of the few things MPs were able to agree on. This means that any prime minister who now tries to leave the EU with no deal, could lose a vote of confidence in Parliament and be forced to resign.
Assuming the next prime minister cannot break the parliamentary deadlock or reach a revised agreement with Brussels – and Mrs May spent the past year trying in vain to do both - this leaves two scenarios: another referendum or a general election. Neither is popular among MPs. Many oppose a new referendum as querying the will of the people the first time around; there would also be a fierce political battle about what the question should be.
MPs are, if anything, even more opposed to a general election. This is partly because the Conservatives fear they could lose power to Labour under its left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn. But it is also because, if the main issue is Brexit, as it would be, and if the recent EU parliamentary elections are any yardstick, then not just the Conservatives, but also Labour, could face a rout. In a startling scenario, some polling suggests that in a general election the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats and Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party could now emerge as the two main parties. Nothing would be solved, however, as Parliament would be as evenly divided as it was before.
The best hope might be if the next few weeks of the Conservative leadership contest could provide a pause for everyone to think again and realise that something like Theresa May’s Brexit deal is the only realistic option. The new Prime Minister could then set out to “sell it” afresh to MPs and the public alike. Otherwise, with Parliament having a veto on “no deal” and MPs reluctant to face a new general election, the UK risks entering the autumn in the same political morass as before.