EUROPE HAS taken the head of a fourth Tory prime minister in a row. At a meeting of the 1922 committee of Conservative MPs on March 27th Theresa May promised that she would not preside over the next stage of the Brexit negotiations and that she would resign if she got her deal through Parliament. She did not go so far as to name a date for her departure, but she might as well have done, given the reaction of the political nation. Those who had been demanding that she quit for months whooped with joy, while those who had been plotting to succeed her intensified their plotting.
Mrs May is trying to make the best of her miserable situation by using her promise to resign as a lever to get MPs to back her deal. Several leading Brexiteers had hinted that they might offer their votes in return for her departure (their great fear was that Mrs May would treat a victory for her deal as vindication and an excuse to stay in power). Boris Johnson, for one, has announced that he has decided to vote for her deal. John Bercow, the Speaker of the Commons, is refusing to allow Mrs May to put her deal back to MPs for another vote unless it is significantly changed. Now she may try to claim that her deal comes with her head on a platter.
In reality she is bowing to the inevitable. Over the past few weeks Mrs May has been confronted with one disaster after another. On March 20th she infuriated MPs from all political parties by accusing them, in effect, of being enemies of the people. On March 24th the papers were full of rumours about cabinet ministers discussing appointing a caretaker prime minister. And on March 25th the House of Commons voted for the first time since 1906 to seize control of parliamentary business from the government and hold a series of indicative votes on where they thought Brexit should go.
Parliament’s seizure of the initiative was the culmination of a long process of disempowerment of the prime minister. Mrs May arguably lost control of her party with the general election of June 2017. The European Research Group of hardline Brexiteers increasingly acted like a party within a party—and a bullying, swaggering, bloviating party at that—while more moderate MPs, such as Nick Boles, chomped at the bit. Then she lost control of her cabinet. The past month has seen ministers voting against a three-line whip without losing their jobs and various factions threatening mass resignations in return for concessions.
How did Mrs May end up in such a terrible mess? A little perspective is necessary. Even Winston Churchill would have struggled with the complex forces unleashed by David Cameron’s catastrophic decision to hold a referendum on Europe. Both Labour and the Tories are deeply divided on the matter. Remain-Leave loyalties are beginning to trump party ones as the vectors of political identity. Joining the EU typically takes five to seven years. There is no reason to imagine that leaving the EU—something no country has tried before—should take any less time. But even given all this, Mrs May bears a good deal of responsibility for the mess.
Some of her problems are down to the fact that she is an introvert trying to operate in a world of extroverts. Wilfredo Pareto, a great Italian polymath, argued that effective leaders fall into two categories: lions, who rely on strength, and foxes, who rely on cunning. Mrs May represents a third type, the tortoise. Tortoises can achieve remarkable things in the right circumstances, thanks to their thick shells and plodding determination, as Mrs May’s six years as home secretary showed. But Brexit demanded different qualities—the cunning of the fox and the occasional raw power of the lion. And tortoises suffer from one big weakness: flip them on their backs and they are extremely vulnerable.
Mrs May also made two fundamental errors of judgment. She treated Brexit as an issue of party management rather than statecraft. She focused on securing the support of hardline Brexiteers, who were suspicious because she had backed Remain, by drawing hard negotiating red lines and indulging in fiery rhetoric about “citizens of nowhere”. She continued with this policy of appeasing the ultras even after she lost her majority in 2017. She refused to explain to voters that Brexit would involve trade-offs, even as it became clear that everybody would have to sacrifice something to bring a divided country back together, and to reconcile conflicting claims of trade and sovereignty.
To add to this debacle, Mrs May mishandled the levers of power that go with being prime minister. She squandered her patronage by handing knighthoods to the unbiddable (like Sir John Redwood) while failing to promote talented younger Tories. She sidelined MPs rather than trying to co-opt them. She gave up the only form of soft power at her disposal, given her inability to make people feel at ease, which was trust that she would do the right thing. Sir Oliver Letwin felt compelled to lead this week’s rebellion to take control of the Commons agenda, despite never having voted against the party whip and repeatedly promising to vote for her deal “to infinity”. Thirty Tories defied the government to support Sir Oliver’s proposal despite the fact that Mrs May had already promised to make government time available for indicative votes. MPS, including many in her own party, no longer trust the vicar’s daughter to stick to her word.
Back to the future leadership
The Tory party is now gearing up to do what it likes best: engaging in a leadership struggle. Campaign teams are already in place. Manifestos are written. Attack lines are being honed, and dark rumours being circulated. But this contest will be particularly intense, not only because it is taking place in the middle of the Brexit negotiations, but also because the Tories are more divided over the future than at any time since the early 20th century. These divisions include the relative claims of nationalist populism and cosmopolitan liberalism, for example, or one-nation Toryism versus high-tech Thatcherism. Britain’s frenetic politics are about to get even more frenzied.