Just like Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron, Theresa May joins the ranks of former Conservative prime ministers who have fallen over the UK’s relations with the EU. She will resign on 7 June having failed to deliver Brexit.
May made a number of mistakes when she replaced Cameron after the June 2016 referendum. Instead of reaching out to other parties and organising a national debate (as Macron did in France faced with the Gilets Jaunes), she chose to make Brexit an internal Conservative party affair constantly making concessions to the right-wing ideologues who would like to see the UK crash out of the EU without any deal.
May made things worse by calling an election in 2017 resulting in losing her majority. She was then forced into a deal with the pro-Brexit, Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. She also drew early red lines stating Britain would leave the single market and customs union, thus ensuring problems with the Irish border. To London’s surprise, Dublin lobbied successfully for a backstop arrangement that would keep trade flowing between both parts of Ireland. This was viewed as an infringement on British sovereignty by the ideologues who voted three times against May’s withdrawal agreement in parliament.
The Conservatives now have to choose another leader before the end of July. There are over ten candidates with most speculation on Boris Johnson, the former Foreign Secretary and bookie’s favourite. Like most of the other candidates, he is ready to accept a no deal Brexit as this is the view of a majority of the elderly party activists who have the final vote on the leadership.
But if Johnson wins on this platform he faces two big problems. First, the EU has made it crystal clear that it will not reopen the withdrawal agreement. And second, there is no majority in the British parliament for no deal.
This means either a general election or a second referendum as the only ways out of the parliamentary impasse. The Conservatives suffered a massive defeat in the European Parliament elections last week and would be terrified of a general election before Brexit was delivered. The odds on a second referendum, therefore, are increasing. Crucially, the Labour Party, which also suffered a huge loss of support for trying to play it both ways, is now moving to support a people’s vote.
How would people vote in another referendum? The new Brexit Party under Nigel Farage would campaign on a simple slogan ‘tell them again’ which proved effective in the European elections. But the parties in favour of a second vote, notably the Liberal Democrats, also witnessed a sharp increase in support. If the second vote was 52-48 to remain it would not resolve matters. It would have to be at least a 60-40 victory to ensure that the UK remained in the UK. But the anti-EU virus that has infected British politics for the past 30 years will not easily go away. The troubled relationship between the UK and the EU is set to continue for the foreseeable future.