When David Cameron announced a referendum on European Union membership in 2013, he said: “It is time to settle this European question in British politics.” Almost three years after the UK voted to leave, the question is not even close to being settled.
Brexit has now wrecked the careers of two prime ministers. Cameron, who promised to lance the boil of the poisonous Europe debate, resigned on the morning after the 2016 referendum – a year after winning the Tories’ first overall majority since 1992.
Now Theresa May has reluctantly admitted failure too. She struck a withdrawal agreement with the EU but united her domestic opponents against her: for Eurosceptics, it was not pure Brexit; for pro-Europeans, it was much worse than the status quo. For such an inflexible leader, the die was probably cast when she needlessly threw away the Tories’ majority by calling the 2017 general election.
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The Europe debate has now claimed the last four Tory prime ministers. Margaret Thatcher resigned after irreconcilable cabinet splits over the EU. John Major’s life was made a misery by the Eurosceptics, and the Tories’ reputation for economic competence was destroyed on Black Wednesday.
That she is only the latest victim will give May no comfort today. She not only failed to deliver Brexit, as she repeatedly promised to do. What will hurt just as much is that Brexit left no space for her domestic goal to tackle “burning injustices” she impressively identified on becoming prime minister. It is not unfinished business, but barely begun. She may try to rush out a few symbolic legacy policies in the next two months but they will be a fig leaf. To paraphrase Enoch Powell, May’s career ends in a double failure.
May allies are already saying no one could have done things differently, given her poisonous inheritance from Cameron. This is an early attempt to rewrite history. She could have tried to unite the country in 2016, but instead prolonged the divisions of the referendum debate by ignoring the 48 per cent. She always put the unity of the Tories ahead of the country’s. She rebuffed an attempt by Sir Oliver Letwin, who was in charge of post-referendum planning when she succeeded Cameron, to seek a cross-party compromise. She made the same mistake when Yvette Cooper urged her to reach across the aisle when she lost her majority. When she finally opened talks with Labour seven weeks ago, it was far too late. Trying to revive issues discussed in the negotiations – a referendum and a customs union – proved the final straw for her cabinet and Tory backbenchers.
Is May’s successor doomed to suffer the same fate, or can they learn from her mistakes? The omens are not good. For many Brexiteers, the answer is simple: May was a Remainer in 2016, and so all the Tories need to do is now elect “one of us”. Nick Timothy, her closest aide until he quit after the election disaster, encouraged this view this week, saying the EU “outmanoeuvred her in the negotiations… Remainers in the cabinet pressed her into a softer Brexit… deep down, she sees leaving the EU as little more than a damage limitation exercise”.
This is unfair. Her successor will be greeted by the same parliamentary arithmetic and, probably, the same brick wall in Brussels when it comes to the withdrawal agreement – the Irish backstop.
However, there might be a small window of opportunity for the incoming prime minister both at home and abroad. In Brussels, officials are assuming the worst – Boris Johnson. Institutional memory tells today’s European Commission he turned British public opinion against the EU project as Brussels correspondent of The Daily Telegraph. Officials also claim he misled voters in the referendum campaign. And yet if he got EU relations off to a constructive start, Johnson might just find a warmer than expected welcome in Brussels. One EU diplomat told me: “It is not impossible that Boris would get a renegotiation of the political declaration [on the future UK-EU relationship] in a way that May could not.” After all, the EU is desperate to settle Brexit.
The problem could be that this window might be closed by pledges to take a tough line against the EU by rival candidates in the Tory leadership contest, which officially begins in the week starting 10 June, but in reality starts today. The leading candidates will probably embrace May’s original mantra that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. There will be demands to prevent a hard Irish border through technological solutions that do not yet exist, or at least give the UK a unilateral exit mechanism from the backstop. “There will be a lot of unicorns on display,” one loyalist minister groaned.
May’s successor should avoid repeating her naive error of trying to play one EU leader off against another. The EU will maintain its united front, and will not abandon Ireland.
May will use her remaining time in office to renew the call for the “compromise” and “consensus” in her emotional resignation announcement. Allies suspect she will try to steer her successor away from the path to a no-deal exit on 31 October. But it looks tempting to many Tories, and her influence will be limited. Despite a desire to allow her to depart with as much dignity as she can muster in the circumstances, her party will move on quickly.
MPs who blocked no deal earlier this year admit privately it will be harder to do so under a prime minister who adopted it as a matter of policy. To stop it, they might need to collapse the new government and force a general election. May’s departure will not ensure the stability and certainty the country needs, as the unresolved Europe question haunts her successor.