Euan McColm: Theresa May’s successor will divide and rule

The tributes, when they came, were as fulsome as they were insincere.

A tearful Theresa May announces her resignation outside 10 Downing Street. Picture: Tolga Akmen/Getty
A tearful Theresa May announces her resignation outside 10 Downing Street. Picture: Tolga Akmen/Getty

After Prime Minister Theresa May announced, her voice cracking with emotion, that she would step down as Conservative Party leader on 7 June, they came to praise her.

Former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab said May had been “dignified as ever” and had shown her integrity. She remained, he added, a “dedicated public servant, patriot, and loyal Conservative.”

The front-runner in the race to replace her as prime minister, Boris Johnson – who quit as foreign secretary during the long campaign to remove May from office – praised her “very dignified statement” and thanked her for her “stoical service” to both country and party.

It was now, added Johnson, time to follow May’s “urgings” and “come together and deliver Brexit”.

Raab – like the school bully who gets to drive his dad’s Audi at the weekend – has done little in recent months but manoeuvre against and undermine May and so to hear him talk of May’s loyalty was, for those who enjoy their politics with a large dollop of hypocrisy on top, especially delicious.

And where does one start with Johnson’s statement? We can take the hypocrisy of his praise for her dignity for granted. What stood out for me was Johnson’s insistence that people come together to deliver Brexit. Johnson and his many acolytes in the Conservative Party have done an excellent job of resisting May’s request that the party comes together for some time now. How curious Johnson thought the time to listen to the PM was on the day she announced her decision to step down. Why, if only he’d paid attention to her pleas over recent months, May might not even have had to quit.

Raab and Johnson – stout Brexiteers both – were simply doing what prospective leadership candidates must. They were displaying their magnanimity and statesmanship.

At the time of her humiliation, Raab (who, among other magical moments, revealed during his time as Brexit Secretary that he hadn’t realised the importance of the Dover-Calais route to UK trade) and Johnson (a career-long liar and former pro-European who threw in his lot with the Brexit crowd because he believed – correctly, it appears – that such a move would advance his ambition of becoming prime minister) wanted us to believe they felt for her.

Johnson, Raab and other golf club bar alphas in the Conservative parliamentary group did what they could to conceal their glee over May’s downfall. Idiots may have been fooled, I suppose.

It was not, it must be remembered, solely the Brexiteers in Westminster who wanted May out. She had lost the faith of Remainers in her party and across the chamber.

Having taken on a role which required her, in attempting to deliver Brexit, to somehow bring together two entrenched tribes, May managed to lose the faith of both.

So, when she went on Friday, declarations that she should have stayed were thin on the ground.

It is hard to argue that May should have stayed. She had failed three times to get the backing of the Commons for the Brexit deal she struck with the EU and there was no sign that, while she remained in post, the will of parliament might change.

And so we stride forward into a bright new tomorrow, in which a new prime minister unites parliament and country behind a Brexit deal.

Ha! Of course we don’t. Rather, we await the installation of a new PM – the choice of the largely right-wing crank membership of the Tory Party – under whom the interminable Brexit shitstorm will continue.

Simply removing May from office does not change the parliamentary arithmetic that has, until now, meant the result of the 2016 referendum has not yet been translated into the UK’s departure from the European Union. The vehement disagreements that paralysed May have not been resolved.

It is very difficult to see how, exactly, things get better from here on in. The chances of the next PM being able to bring the country together (what a meaningless expression that has become) appear to me to be vanishingly slender.

If anything, the fault-lines dividing UK society stand to get deeper.

The cliché goes that the favourite never wins the Tory leadership race. Those clinging to this in the hope it means Johnson is to be thwarted in his attempt to become prime minister are, I fear, to be gravely disappointed.

Yes, Johnson is a divisive figure in the Tory Westminster group, but the party membership, fools that they are, love him. It is unthinkable that Tory MPs would dare to deny giving the members the chance to choose Johnson. If he does not make it to the final two candidates – at which point the decision is thrown open to the members – I will be astonished.

When he was mayor of London, Johnson played up his metropolitan liberal credentials. His affable, jolly good chap persona allowed him to win the support of voters who would not normally have backed a Tory.

Prime Minister Johnson, on the other hand, will be a man of the right. His support is among hard-Brexit-supporting wingnuts and it is that constituency he will have to please.

Arguments between left and right are of the past. Now we are in a culture war – a battle between the liberal and the reactionary, between the open and the closed – and the next prime minister, whether it’s Johnson, Raab or another swivel-eyed right-winger, will be no friend of those who continue to believe Brexit will be a mistake.

May took on the very difficult task of delivering a form of Brexit that might keep both Remainers and Leavers happy. It was soon clear she was not up to the job.

But the fact of May’s incompetence does not mean there is someone out there who might achieve what she had not.

We may be witnessing the departure of the worst PM in living memory but I wonder how long it will take before we’re thinking back, nostalgically, to her reign.

If you thought the UK was a divided place, now, just you wait until Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s in office.