Brexit: Fate of nation now hangs on Tories’ choice of leader – Christine Jardine

Boris Johnson appears to have repeatedly chosen his own ambitions over the good of the country (Picture: Luke Dray/Getty Images)
Boris Johnson appears to have repeatedly chosen his own ambitions over the good of the country (Picture: Luke Dray/Getty Images)
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After Theresa May announced her resignation, the future of the country is now dependent on who the Tories choose to be their next leader, writes Christine Jardine.

The contrast between the two speeches could not have been more stark. To be fair, neither could my reaction.

In July 2016, I had watched Theresa May speak on the steps of Downing Street with a feeling that, even as a Liberal Democrat, I was prepared to wait and see what this Prime Minister could do.

That may sound like a surprising sentiment, but towards the end of the Cameron premiership, even before the disastrous EU referendum, what I had felt was something more approaching despair.

I knew this new Prime Minister came from the Home Office with what one might diplomatically describe as ‘baggage’. But, listening to her promises of support for the “just about managing”, and thinking that her position on the EU as a Remainer might help temper some of the most extreme of Brexiteers around her, I hoped this might be a leader to find a route through the chaos we knew was coming.

Looking back three years that now seems almost ridiculous.

Having had a close-up view of the May premiership, I wonder how I could ever have doubted that it would come to this. I almost think it wouldn’t have mattered who the Conservative Prime Minister was for the past three years – the internal divisions, adherence to two-party tribalism and refusal to confront either, would have made the job almost impossible.

Do I feel a little sorry for Theresa May? Sort of. But not entirely.

Watching her resignation speech, it was clear that she is a woman who tried with everything she had to do what she believed was the right thing.

I know something of how difficult politics can be and how she continued to this point with the weight of public and private criticism she faced is astonishing. But, in between those two speeches we’ve hardly progressed an inch since 2016.

READ MORE: Why Boris Johnson won’t get a no-deal Brexit – Ian Murray MP

During that time, many have spoken about the Prime Minister’s bullheadedness and unwillingness to listen to suggestions or take advice on board.

In some aspects of leadership, these can be positive qualities, and no one would say that sticking to your guns when you absolutely believe you are doing the right thing is something to be criticised.

But in Brexit that has been a major contributory factor in creating the deadlock in Parliament, which has left the Government with no clear strategy.

How much the internal Tory squabbling contributed to the inability to break that deadlock, and which individuals made it impossible for the Prime Minister to create party consensus, we will only know when the memoirs are published.

What is surely clear though is that the country would now be in a much better position if the outgoing Prime Minister could have reached out across the House from the very beginning.

On more than one occasion, the Liberal Democrat’s – and others – offered compromise. But all that was offered in return was a lecture on why it had to be this deal.

Tory party interest always trumped what would be best for the country. And, in that, Theresa May did not act alone.

That the party in Government could not be unified, that neither side could compromise is not just sad, it is dangerous for all of us.

When Theresa May recounted the tale of being told by Nicholas Winton to remember compromise, I could not help but wonder what she was hinting at. Could it be that the criticism was aimed at those on her own benches? Perhaps it was not the PM who was so averse to compromise that stalemate became the order of the day?

READ MORE: EU: Theresa May’s resignation ‘changes nothing’ in Brexit talks

Certainly the Liberal Democrats have been clear – we would have been content to vote her Brexit deal through Parliament, so long as it provided for the people to have the final say. Compromise. It was there. it was rejected.

Of course, I’m confident that faced with the question “this is what Brexit will look like – is this what you really wanted?”, the public would think again and vote to remain in the EU. It has surely become abundantly clear that no arrangement can be as good as the deal we already have as a member state.

But instead of consensus and compromise, the future of the country is now dependent on who the Tories choose to be their next leader.

And with the Halloween exit date looming, there is nothing I find scarier than the prospect of a hard-right Prime Minister intent on that cliff-edge the majority is trying so hard to avoid.

The frontrunner, Boris Johnson, I do not find enticing.

This is a man who, as Foreign Secretary, actually managed to make matters worse for a British national wrongly imprisoned in Iran.

This is a man who fuelled Islamophobia by saying Muslim women wearing burkas “look like letter boxes”.

And this is a man who appears repeatedly to have chosen his own ambitions over the good of the country.

He wouldn’t be my choice but, like most of the country, I will not have one.

Whoever the Conservatives choose, we can only hope that he, or she, is strong enough to put repairing the country before finding yet another sticking plaster for their party.

We can not afford another false start.