Theresa May Profile of Difficult Doom

Global Center Stage By Tejinder S Lamba*

Theresa May Profile of Difficult Doom

Prime Minister Theresa May, having developed in the shell and portfolio of internal security and affairs, found herself having to muster the whole gamut of the state.

It may well come to be seen as the greatest constitutional crisis in Britain since the 17th century. It was also one precipitated by faulty planning, shoddy design and blithe indifference to circumstance. Prime Minister Theresa May, having developed in the shell and portfolio of internal security and affairs, found herself having to muster the whole gamut of the state.

When she succeeded as Conservative Party leader, and in doing so becoming the second prime minister of the UK, the BBC (July 25, 2016) already observed that she was “taking charge of the UK at one of the most turbulent times in recent political history.” It also acknowledged a “carefully cultivated image of political dependability and unflappability” which made her, at least at the initial appearance, as “the right person at the right time as the fallout from the UK’s vote to leave the EU smashed possible rivals out of contention.”

In an environment often hostile to women, she developed a reputation for not wobbling and straight talking, reminding her Conservative colleagues in 2002 that their party had become known as “the nasty party”. But it was as Home Secretary upon which she made her mark, becoming the second longest serving home secretary in a hundred years.

In replacing Prime Minister David Cameron, May’s prime ministership has come to be associated with one thing: leaving the European Union in a way best reflecting the wishes of those who voted for that result in the 2016 referendum. She hoped, in taking the reins, that Britain would “forge a new, bold, positive role for ourselves in the world.”

Ma while continuing to live up to that image made various blunders. She miscalculated in calling a needless general election for June 2017 in the hope it would consolidate her power and wipe out Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Instead, Corbyn gained a strong foothold even as May’s negotiation position in Brussels was weakened. The wounded prime minister, for the survival of her government, also had to count on the continued support of the DUP of Northern Ireland.

The election fundamentally undermined May and support within her party. Her critics multiplied. Within her party, absolute, mandatory cowardice took hold, a feeling that she has betrayed the cause and required removal. Traditional Tory positions asserted a monopoly of the Great Britain fantasy free of European intrusion, to be defended with the zeal of urban guerrillas. Arch critics Jacob Rees Mogg and Boris Johnson remain persisting, sniping critics. Neither has managed to strike a blow; all have failed in mounting a direct assault on her positions, preferring catty rebukes and side blows.

In 2018, vain efforts were made to unseat her. As with each attempt, all seemed to have the quality of cowardice, conviction from the rear, fear and incompetence at the front. Significantly, all have failed. In February, there were talks of a hard Brexit troika comprising Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson forcing their way into the palace. Individuals such as international trade secretary Liam Fox were left having to shore up the government position constantly. He demanded an end to the “obsessive criticism” of Brexit. “Brexit,” he told Conservative Home in January that year, “is not a time bomb to be defused but a great opportunity to be embraced.” His overseas trips have been greeted with confidence; on returning, he meets an enervating “self-defeating pessimism that is too often on show from certain politicians, commentators and media outlets over here.”

May’s version of a Brexit deal in November 2018 left all unhappy. Running into almost six hundred pages is considered a financial settlement with the EU to meet outstanding commitments, negotiate the rights of British citizens on the continent and EU citizens in the UK in a post-Brexit environment and secure a mechanism to prevent a “hard border” with Ireland. A single customs territory between the EU and the UK would also be created. The idea of a transition period was also floated, during which EU rules would still apply to the UK. Added to this was also a non-binding declaratory document on future trade relations. With some justifiable grounds, critics felt that the UK was submitting to vassal status, effectively permitting the EU to dictate terms without a need to reciprocate an acknowledgement for UK sovereignty.

This propelled yet another effort to unseat May in December last year, Tory MPs got the necessary 48 letters of no confidence to support a challenge to her leadership. In the words of Rees-Mogg, “the draft withdrawal agreement presented to parliament today turned out to be worse than anticipated and fails to meet the promises given to the nation by the prime minister, either own account or on behalf of us all in the Conservative Party Manifesto.”

Her inflexibility has also proven her undoing. Deadlines set with the EU have passed and been revised. The defeat of her Brexit plan by 432 votes to 202 in January this year was the worst by a British administration in over a century. “In all normal circumstances,” wrote economic commentator Robert Peston in The Spectator (January 15, 2019), “a Prime Minister would resign when suffering such humiliation on their central policy – and a policy Theresa May herself said today would ‘set the future of this country for a generation’.” In March, the figures were only marginally better for the same outcome in two votes: 391 against and 242 for the second; 344 to 286 for the third.

But despite failing on each occasion to get her version of a Brexit deal passed, her opponents have not done much better. No confidence motions advanced by the Labour Party have failed, and despite criticism from Corbyn that the May administration remains stacked with zombies, it survives. Towards the end of March, Parliament, in an act of desperation, pondered over eight options as to how to approach leaving the EU, an attempt to leave May out in the cold and identify an alternative. Despite having a range of options as to how to submit to the divorce process, none garnered sufficient support via paper ballot. Both extremes – a no-deal Brexit, and a veto of the entire Article 50 process were about as popular as the plague. The one to gather most steam, and fall at the last hurdle, is the idea of keeping Britain in the common market, a cord that riles the rawest hard Brexit Tories. Speculatively, it suggests that the country will eventually find some form with the European countries of Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein.

May remains the convenient symbol of hostility for those who see her as all that has gone wrong with Britain in the Brexit negotiations. Her lack of bendability has been associated with weakness. Forgotten here is the process that led to this state of circumstances, one which saw no plans were drawn up, or anticipated contingencies in the event of a pro-Brexit referendum result. The UK, in short, was woefully ill-prepared for an outcome that was never genuinely expected, even by many Brexiteers. All see the premiership as doomed and she has more or less conceded that she will not be prime minister in overseeing the implementation of the Brexit process.

Critics, however, cannot help but feel worried at her departure. As Polly Toynbee observed in The Guardian (Mar 28, 2019), “we may yet come to miss her, though she has been the worst prime minister of our political lifetimes – bar none.” Her presence reflected a rueful Toynbee, “kept out the barbarian hordes of Brexiteers barging one another out of the way to seize her throne.” In November last year, the Financial Times (Nov 19, 2018) expressed admiration for May, despite being a “mediocre media performer” and a dogmatist. Her Brexit deal, despite being seen as “rotten”, was “probably the best that could be achieved if the starting point was ending free movement of people.”

In failure, May has governed. In defeat, she has endured with a stubbornness marked by a sentiment long expressed by Margaret Thatcher: TINA, or “there is no alternative”. Her period of governance has become comically desperate, so much so she has sought the assistance of the previously ignored Labour Party. Even at this writing, problems have emerged, with Corbyn and Labour Party stalwarts insisting that May has not made sufficient adjustments or concessions. For all the uncertainty, one fact remains: May, politically, continues to remain prime minister.

Go to Global Center Stage

Back to Top

Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.