The political demise of the UK’s prime minister has been so overpredicted that it’s hard to believe that she might finally be leaving. But the resignation of Andrea Leadsom, May’s minister who managed the Commons, may be the fatal blow. The Times (which has gotten a great deal wrong on Brexit) reports that May’s supporters anticipate she’ll announce her departure after a meeting with Graham Brady, who heads the 1922 Committee. Recall that May managed to get them to hold off on plans to defenestrate her by turning on the tears.
Leadsom is a staunch but not rabid Brexiter. She deemed some new features May added to the withdrawal bill, in particular to let Parliament vote again on holding a second referendum, to come too close to reneging on Brexit. From the Financial Times:
In a fresh blow to Mrs May’s fragile leadership, Andrea Leadsom, leader of the House of Commons and a prominent Leave campaigner, resigned from the government on Wednesday evening saying she could no longer accept Mrs May’s Brexit deal.
She said the possibility of a second EU referendum raised this week by the prime minister would be “dangerously divisive” and made clear her opposition to the revamped EU withdrawal agreement bill that Mrs May plans to put to parliament.
I must say I feel sorry for May. Even though she did a terrible job, it’s hard to imagine any of the serious contenders for prime minister would have done anything other than a different type of terrible job. And we may be about to see that proven out if as is widely expected, Boris Johnson becomes prime minister.
As we are seeing now, both of the major parties are too fundamentally split on Brexit for anything other than an inspired and energetic leader to have steered a path through the problem, and even then, it may not have been possible. Recall that for better part of two years after the Brexit vote, Fleet Street was braying with virtually one voice about how simple Brexit would be, how the EU was terrified of the loss of exports to the UK and of a crashout. And even if the Government had been able to hear otherwise, there was no one left in the civil service with the expertise and credibility to say otherwise.
One school of historical thought rejects the “great man” theory, and instead argues that circumstances create opportunities for exceptional action and people with the needed skills and ambitions manage to find their way into them. I have trouble with that view, since I don’t see the historical necessity of a Talleyrand, who nevertheless was enormously influential, nor do I see AOC somehow stepping into a role. And Obama ignored a critical three month window of opportunity when he could have made FDR scale reforms, and chose instead to reconstitute the status quo ante as much as possible.
But I do see some elements of truth to this line of thinking with Brexit. Brexit wound up being the end game of the Thatcherite revolution that was central to the Tories and the Blairites accepted but tried to make a bit less mean-spirited. No one of any consequence in the UK countered the relentless Tory scapegoating of the EU for the damage done by Conservative austerity. And a sore point with many working class Brits in the UK’s rust belt, that of the influx of Eastern European immigrants, was actually UK scheme that backfired. The UK pushed hard for EU enlargement, meaning the admission of Eastern European countries, to dilute the influence of Germany and France.
So whoever chose to be Prime Minister and set the Brexit time bomb ticking (which would have to have happened at some point, although May’s rush to send in the Article 50 notice was one of her major mistakes) would be destined to preside over a colossal mess. However, the distinguishing feature of May’s time in No. 10, her astonishing ability to take pain and fight off challenges, was enabled by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, which made it far more difficult to dissolve Parliament. Under the old rules, May would have been gone long ago. But the result may have been a series of coalition governments, or alternatively, a coalition that couldn’t agree on anything regarding Brexit while that clock was ticking.
Even though I do feel a bit of sympathy for May, the flip side is that her record at Home Office, particularly with the Windrush scandal, means there is not likely to be much that historians will be able to find to cast her as anything other than relentless and exceptionally unimaginative, except in her idiot-savant genius at political maneuvering. It was vlade who I believe typed her out as the sort of manager who won’t change course even when circumstances make clearer that a revision in plans is necessary. Of course, May did in the end, witness her getting to a deal with the EU, but only after beating her head against the wall for many months.
I imagine May’s one hope for near term solace is if Boris is indeed the next prime minister. Even she will benefit from being compared to him.