Brexit stage left: Why Theresa May's run as PM ended in tears

The U.K. prime minister came to power with a parliamentary majority. But trying doggedly to cut a Brexit deal ultimately ended her leadership, writes Don Murray.

U.K. prime minister resigned on Friday

British Prime Minister Theresa May announced her tearful resignation outside Downing Street in London on May 24. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

The astonishingly cynical and astonishingly successful 19th-century French statesman Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand — foreign minister under Napoleon and prime minister under Napoleon's arch-enemy, Louis XVIII — once described his approach as "surtout, point de zèle." Above all, no zeal.

Theresa May was nothing if not zealous. The U.K. prime minister wore zeal like a badge of honour as she doggedly pursued her goal of separating Britain from the European Union in a deal that her party and her parliament kept rejecting.

In the end, she announced her resignation on Friday in tears. Zeal, as Talleyrand might have told her, was not the tool to deliver Brexit.

It's hard to remember, three years on, how much room May had to manoeuvre when she became prime minister. The Brexit referendum result in 2016 hit the British political class like a thunderbolt. Few knew how to react.

May, whose Conservatives had a parliamentary majority, had a virtually free hand. She could have consulted her colleagues and the opposition, could have taken her time, could have crafted a plan for a "soft Brexit" that would have commanded an even larger majority.

She did none of that. There was no consultation, no time-wasting and no interest in a soft Brexit. The markers she quickly laid down were rigid — notably, her insistence on strict control of immigration, even if it meant excluding EU citizens, and her refusal to join a customs union with the EU.

Then, nine months into her premiership, she set the clock running on negotiations. They would last just two years.

Having done that, she promptly called a snap election — and lost her parliamentary majority.

'No principles, only events'

Let us again consult the prince of cynicism, Talleyrand, who defined politics this way: "There are no principles, only events."

For May, the first event was the greatest — the loss of her control of parliament. There were many others. One of her principles in negotiating with the EU was that the 27 remaining countries of the union wouldn't hold together, and that she and her government would be able to split them and negotiate a sweet deal.

May was home secretary under Prime Minister David Cameron, right, and went on to replace him after his resignation in the wake of the Brexit referendum result in 2016. (Carl Court/Getty)

In the event, the EU lined up its tanks in a row. They fired in unison, and kept firing until May's government was forced to retreat in confusion.

More events served to undermine her. She cobbled a deal together that the EU would accept and locked her cabinet in her Chequers retreat until they all agreed to it. Their agreement lasted two days, and then came the thunderous resignations — first, of her own Brexit minister, David Davis, and then of the clownish but popular foreign secretary, Boris Johnson.

Who will replace May? Here are some of the likely hopefuls

There were more resignations. Where other leaders would have ditched their failed approach, May simply hunkered down, clinging to her deal, presenting it to parliament not once but three times — and watched it get defeated three times. There were no precedents for this in British politics.

There were almost no precedents for her as a leader. She had no small talk and no people skills. Her cabinet frequently had no idea what she was thinking. She failed to reach out to MPs. Her husband and a handful of aides were apparently the only people she confided in.

A changed party system

May came to office as an accidental prime minister. David Cameron, the man who had won the parliamentary majority for the Conservatives in 2015, had also organized the referendum on the EU. When he lost it — after campaigning to keep Britain in the EU — he promptly resigned. Other potential successors knifed each other in public. May was the only one left without blood on her.

She leaves office as a destroyed prime minister. Like the Bourbon kings of France, she appears to have learned nothing and forgot nothing.

The last three years have done more than destroy her — they may have helped destroy the traditional British party system. Her Conservatives were polling around 10 per cent in the run-up to the European Parliament elections taking place this week.

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, right, has surged in polls for the European Parliament election. (Lily Martin/CBC)

The expected winner is the Brexit Party, the child of Nigel Farage, a longtime member of the European Parliament and political gadfly. He has seized upon the fury of many British voters with their established political leaders. He says he will give them what they want: a clean break with the EU, with or without a deal with Brussels.

And now one final word from Talleyrand. "Since the masses are always eager to believe something," he once said, "for their benefit nothing is so easy to arrange as facts." 

Farage is a master at arranging facts. Three years ago, he was saying that a soft Brexit deal would be a snap to arrange with Brussels. Now he yells that Brussels has betrayed Britain, and only the most brutal of Brexits is acceptable.

And the man seen as the front-runner to succeed May as prime minister is Boris Johnson, another masterful fact re-arranger. In the 2016 referendum campaign, he insisted that leaving the EU would free up billions of dollars for Britain. That promise has now been forgotten.

Other countries in Europe have seen a major increase in the vote of populist parties. If Johnson wins the Conservative leadership, Britain would find itself with a populist prime minister.

That, too, would be a legacy of May's three miserable years in office.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.