Why history will be kinder to Theresa May than her critics
Theresa May has announced her resignation as British prime minister after support for the latest version of her Brexit strategy failed to gain backing from even her centrist supporters in the cabinet. She will remain prime minister until after Donald Trump visits the United Kingdom early next month and until a successor is chosen by the ruling Conservative Party. Standing on Downing Street, an emotional May said she had done her best to convince members to back her agreement with the European Union. With that, her premiership was consigned to the history books.
Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary and staunch advocate of exiting the European Union, is the favorite among the grassroots party supporters to succeed May, although he is likely to face strong opposition from many who fear a hard Brexit should become prime minister. Others likely to vie for the leadership include Jeremy Hunt, the current foreign secretary, as well as Graham Brady, the chairman of the influential 1922 Conservative Party Committee, who might well become a compromise candidate between the “Brexiteers” and the “Remainers” within the party.
The inglorious exit of May after less than three years on the job ends the latest chapter in the Brexit saga. She is yet another prime minister to fall unceremoniously out of office as a result of the dogged infighting of the Conservative Party over the nature of British relations with the European Union, one of the unhappiest of contemporary political marriages. Her predecessor, David Cameron, resigned just under three years ago after failing to win the referendum on remaining in the European Union. Despite winning three successive general elections, Margaret Thatcher was still ousted from power because of her increasingly harsh rhetoric toward the direction of the European Union project, views at odds with many in her own government who then ultimately abandoned her and forced her out.
The May years will most likely be remembered for her failed efforts at trying to deliver Brexit, although at times she tried in vain to steer the political narrative to other issues like tackling inequality, improving the national health service, and restoring devolved power to Northern Ireland. While she succeeded in negotiating a withdrawal agreement with the European Union leaders, the British Parliament had rejected it on three separate occasions, sometimes by historically high margins. Her final throw of the political dice involved offering to resign if that agreement was passed but to no avail. The House of Commons would not budge and the pressure from within the Conservative Party continued to increase.
Despite her political miscalculation of calling a snap general election in 2017 and losing her parliamentary majority, something she never fully recovered from, history is likely to be kinder to May than some of her own harshest critics both inside and outside her own party. Delivering on the Brexit vote in 2016 was a near impossible task given the complexity of untangling more than four decades of relations between Great Britain and the European Union coupled with the rigid views of those in the British Parliament, where there still exists a multitude of technical definitions of what Brexit actually means and where neither faction controls a majority.
This will not change with a new resident inside Downing Street. With the second woman as British prime minister exiting the stage, leaving behind an even more divided country, it remains to be seen how any future prime minister can break the impasse in a government and a nation so polarized.
Michael J. Geary is a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. He is also an associate professor of European history at Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
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