Boris Johnson or whoever replaces Theresa May in 10 Downing Street will face the same problems and fear the same outcome, which could make a no-deal Brexit seem like a risk worth taking.
You’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel a touch of sympathy for Theresa May as, having delivered a gracious resignation speech in which she appealed for greater compromise, she lost her composure right at the end as she spoke of her “enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love”. As May said, she did her best, but it was simply not good enough – and she knew it.
However the challenge of ensuring that “Brexit means Brexit” was one that would have tested the finest politicians Britain has ever had. Perhaps only someone with the charisma and rhetorical power of Winston Churchill, the force of will of Margaret Thatcher and the emollient skills of persuasion of Tony Blair could have pulled it off.
From the start, Brexit was never clearly defined – it has always meant different things to different people. For some, the UK can stay in the Single Market and Customs Union but still leave the EU. For others this is a betrayal, a non-Brexit that would make Britain a “Brussels rule-taker”, and the only Brexit that will do is a no-deal one, regardless of the numerous credible warnings that this will produce an economic catastrophe.
The first of May’s multiple missteps was to rigidly define Brexit as something close to the vision of the hard-Brexiteers in her own party, but not close enough for them. She had opportunities to change that, but refused, reaching out to other parties too late and half-heartedly at best. Perhaps she thought traditional Tory party loyalty to the leader would win through in the end, but even European politicians were surprised that she so badly misjudged her own MPs. And it must always be remembered that the people who prevented May delivering Brexit were Conservative hard-Brexiteers.
Calling a snap election in a bid to boost the Conservatives’ Commons majority was another considerable blunder. Given favourable polls at the time, it seemed a sensible decision but a disastrous campaign saw her reduced to leading a minority Government. And one major reason for that disaster was May’s own performance. When she avoided the televised leaders’ debate, sending Amber Rudd instead, it smacked of cowardice. She took voters for granted and paid the price.
She then failed to see she had lost the touch of Thatcher which had prompted some to see her as the new ‘Iron Lady’ and continued to try to bend people to her will. But it was they who were “not for turning” as it became increasingly clear that May was, in fact, one of the weakest Prime Ministers of modern times.
Whoever her replacement turns out to be will face the same problems and is likely to fear the same outcome – crying on the steps of 10 Downing Street after failing to break the deadlock.
For some, like Boris Johnson, the idea of a no-deal Brexit may appear to be the ‘easy’ way out. All they would need to do is wait for Britain’s Article 50 extension to run out and the UK would leave the EU without a deal on 31 October. Only a vote of no confidence by MPs, bringing down the government and forcing a general election, would prevent this.
Johnson hardly appears to have the qualities required to be one of our greatest Prime Ministers, the sort of politician who could achieve an economically sensible Brexit deal and return the focus of British politics to important bread-and-butter issues that have been ignored for far too long. Unionists will also fear his impact on the Scottish independence debate. The UK is losing one of its least capable Prime Ministers. The real danger now is her successor is even worse.