How Brexit Ate the Prime Minister

Therese Raphael – Bloomberg View

Prime Minister Theresa May was popular once. That may be hard to remember as she steps down in two weeks’ time, but it’s true. Just three years before her own political party forced her to step aside, she was hailed by politicians and citizens as the wisest choice to lead the UK’s separation from the European Union.
Then came the reality of Brexit and the political stalemate she was unable to break. History will judge her by that failure, which has hardened national divisions and hollowed out the center of British politics. But it’s not fair to assess May’s legacy without separating the things she could control from the things that were out of her hands.
May had slid quietly into her position. When Prime Minister David Cameron resigned after the shock of the 2016 Brexit referendum, it seemed a foregone conclusion that charismatic Boris Johnson would succeed him. But Johnson withdrew after being betrayed by another hardline Brexiter, Michael Gove, who accused him of lacking character. Now the former foreign secretary is the front runner to succeed her.
May wasn’t an obvious choice then, but she quickly became a popular one in the months after the referendum. In August, 2016, she was regarded favorably by 48 percent of all voters and unfavorably by 36 percent, opinion polls showed. In July that year, 52 percent of those asked said that May would make the best prime minister; only 18 percent said the same of opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
People weren’t looking for magnetism in a leader so much as a cool head and the ability to unite. May exuded the qualities of a dutiful public servant and a steadfast leader. As the longest-serving home secretary, a job that is often the graveyard of political ambitions, she built a reputation as a master of detail who would stick to a position until she wore down or outlasted her opponents. When Conservative lawmaker Kenneth Clarke referred to her accidentally on camera as a “bloody difficult woman,” most saw it as a compliment, intended or not. Margaret Thatcher, after all, was difficult too.
After the referendum, May spoke movingly to the whole country, but especially to the people whom she referred to as “just about managing.” By that she meant voters hard-hit by years of austerity and whiplashed by globalization and the widening gap between their skills and the demands of the modern workplace. They put Brexit over the line and May saw it as her job as to listen to them.
What happened to all that promise?
One thing that happened was the 2017 election. She hoped to ride her popularity to a sweeping Conservative victory that would strengthen her Brexit hand at home and in Brussels. Government ministers were essentially sidelined as the campaign focused less on the Conservative Party and more on its “strong and stable” leader. But campaigning requires a level of relatability that May lacked, and her opponent, Corbyn, had in spades. The slogan descended into self-parody. May’s wooden appearances didn’t help. She was mocked as the Maybot.
To say that train wreck of an election sowed the seeds of her downfall misses the point. Yes, May ran a horrible campaign and the Conservative Party lost its parliamentary majority. Yes, she had to then make the fateful decision of entering into a confidence-and-supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party, whose 10 Northern Irish MPs would later hold the fate of the government Brexit plan in their hands. But two crucial contributors to her problems were independent of the electoral setback: the divisive Brexit vote itself, and May’s flawed leadership and communication style.
People tend to dwell on the latter, blaming her failures on an absence of charisma, but it’s the cocktail of the two that was toxic. Just ask: If you added charisma to May’s other qualities, would the outcome have been different?
She is undeniably wooden. She’s not the first Tory leader with that deficit. Edward Heath – described as “vain, rude, penny-pinching” – was so lacking in magnetism when he occupied 10 Downing Street in the early 1970s that journalists checked their watches when he addressed them. John Major, prime minister for most of the 1990s, was known as a “dull man in a grey suit.”
The public retained some of its early admiration for May as she battled to get her agreement to leave the EU through Parliament, but support drained away. By late March, 65 percent of the public held a negative opinion of her. May seemed adrift, unable to do anything but push the same rejected plan. A low point came when she addressed the nation late one night to harangue MPs for not making a decision.
It wasn’t just Brits who felt exasperated. EU leaders barely hid their own frustrations. At successive EU summits, the mood went from commiseration and empathy to despair at May’s style. One member of the European Parliament, the Belgian Philippe Lamberts, complained to reporters that May was “devoid of the basic human skills needed for a leader.”
May’s fall partly came because her strengths – determination, loyalty to her party, ability to resist pressure – were also weaknesses. The flip side of her steely resolve was intransigence. The flip side of her loyalty to party was an inability to make decisions that would be unpopular with a small but powerful part of it. The flip side of her sense of duty was an allergy to compromise.
It didn’t help that May had few friends. She is a private person who relied on so small a group of advisers that, to some, only her husband Philip really knew where she stood. She seemed out of touch with the mood in her party and the public. Her cabinet members were so disloyal and mistrustful that discussions in meetings were leaked in gruesome detail. Not even Security Council proceedings were safe, and May had to fire her defense minister after word got out on a matter involving the role of the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in building Britain’s 5G network.

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