Britain’s Brexit leader: How will history judge Theresa May?

London – Theresa May’s ability to defeat a second motion of confidence amid widespread hostility to her strategy over Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union is, at one level, a testament to her resilience.

Britain’s second female prime minister likes to play up the image once painted of her as a “bloody difficult woman” by Conservative Party grandee Kenneth Clarke – and is said by friends not to worry about being liked.

But there is a fine line between the determination that evokes the “iron lady” spirit of her predecessor Margaret Thatcher, and obstinacy – something May’s critics often claim has been a key flaw since the UK voted in a referendum to leave the EU in 2016.

May has stuck myopically to her own interpretation of that vote – passed by 52 percent to 48 percent – as a reflection of her own views on immigration and other issues that now leave Britain facing a “hard Brexit”, by which it leaves the bloc without a deal at all.

She has failed to forge a consensus both in parliament and the country behind the “red lines” based on this interpretation that she then set as the basis for her exit talks with Brussels.

Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University London, believes history will deliver a “damning verdict” on the way May has pursued Brexit since she became prime minister in 2016. 

He said: “She didn’t take the chance which she could have taken right back at the beginning to try and forge some kind of cross-party consensus which reflected the very narrow win by the ‘Leave’ campaign, but instead interpreted the referendum result as an overwhelming endorsement of a ‘hard Brexit’.

“The problem for her is that this not something that this parliament wants to contemplate and, of course, it’s not something that very large numbers of people in the country want to contemplate. 

“But since she interpreted it like that, since she interpreted people’s reasons for voting in the referendum as taking back control of immigration, she therefore had to leave the European single market and the customs union – and from that everything else has followed.”

Although Wednesday’s vote of confidence in her government was defeated largely because Conservative MPs against May’s Brexit strategy despise the prospect of losing power, it revealed the degree to which Brexit has become synonymous with the prime minister herself.

First and foremost she has failed to explain to either the public or MPs how her thinking on Brexit has evolved.

Anand Menon, director of the The UK in a Changing Europe

The UK’s political process gives the executive unique powers to control how parliament does business, and at the same time Brexit has been such a divisive issue in the UK that alternatives to it have been difficult to advance – enabling her to set the agenda unopposed.

That changed on Tuesday, when MPs overwhelmingly rejected her personal vision both of how the UK should withdraw from the EU and their future relationship. 

As a result, Wednesday’s subsequent motion of confidence in her government was more than just a procedural inevitability, it was an expression of deep frustration with her self-styled image as a “bloody difficult woman”.

Professor Anand Menon, director of the The UK in a Changing Europe academic think tank, said: “I think she will go down in history as someone who is obviously resilient, who obviously has a strong sense of duty, but has ultimately been ineffective for a number of reasons: first and foremost she has failed to explain to either the public or MPs how her thinking on Brexit has evolved. 

“She has never explained the trade-offs that are inherent to the Brexit process and that has got in the way of her bringing people with her as she has gone on this journey.”

A computer screen shows news about Brexit with British Prime Minister Theresa May as a broker watches his screens at the stock market in Frankfurt, Germany [AP Photo/Michael Probst]

There is no doubt that May’s premiership has been uniquely challenging as leader of a minority administration, which makes it much harder to get a legislative programme through parliament – but the decisions she has made on Brexit have exacerbated those difficulties.

Maddy Thimont Jack, a researcher at the Institute for Government in London, said: “It is difficult to say how history will judge her, but she has had a problem keeping both her own MPs and also other MPs on side. 

“She has clearly struggled to bring people with her in terms of the decisions she has made and to convince people in the House that the decisions she has made have been the best way forward.”

Last-ditch efforts at cross-party talks?

A key failure has been her reluctance to reach out to the opposition in the national interest.

On Wednesday night, with 72 days to go until the EU divorce, after surviving yet another day in Brexit Britain, she attempted to strike a conciliatory tone after meeting with several opposition members – but crucially not the leader of the main opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. He said he would only meet if the prospect of a no-deal exit was off the table. 

Thimont Jack said: “At the moment she is reaching out now to other parliamentarians, but it might have been worth doing that sooner to actually try and build more of a coalition in favour of what she is doing in the House of Commons, because there have been very few opportunities for parliament to actually vote on what Brexit would look like. 

“It might have been more sensible to get some consensus behind what she was doing sooner rather than being in a situation of trying to persuade MPs right at the last minute to actually back the deal.” 

It is this failure to build a consensus that helps to explain why Britons are no closer to predicting the likely outcome of the saga.

The safest bet that is emerging at this late stage of the process is that the UK is likely to need an extension of the March 29 deadline under “Article 50”, invoked by May when she formally announced the country’s intention to quit the EU.

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