By the BBC’s Rob Watson, an old friend of mine.
So the beginning of the end is now in sight for Theresa May. Highly reluctantly she’s been forced by the so called “men in grey suits” (the senior, mainly male, MPs who represent the parliamentary Conservative party) to set a timetable for a timetable for her departure. The expectation is that the process for replacing her as leader will be well underway before MPs break for the summer recess in late July.
So Mrs May’s very unhappy 3 years in office look like coming to a very unhappy end.
She will not leave her successor a great inheritance to put it mildly. Brexit will remain utterly unresolved, Britain’s standing around the world is in free fall and most damningly and importantly of all she will leave behind a country even more divided than when she entered No10 in the weeks after the referendum in July 2016.
So what went wrong? Her critics on the Remain side would say the following:
1) She treated the result of the referendum as if it had been 80/20 not 52/48
2) She viewed Brexit primarily as a challenge about managing divisions within the Conservative Party rather than as a national crisis and existential challenge to the UK’s place in the world
3) She never levelled with Leave voters and the public more generally about the enormous risks, complexities and downsides of Britain’s departure from the EU and the past upsides of membership.
4) it was a massive tactical mistake to trigger the two year article 50 process for leaving the EU without having a clear idea of what she wanted/was politically achievable.
5) She simply lacked the kind of personality, vision and stature needed for dealing with the biggest political challenge to the country since 1945
There are other criticisms, but those are the main ones from the Remain side.
From Brexiteers the central criticism is that she mishandled the whole approach to negotiations with the EU in particular by never being really serious about the threat of leaving without a deal and that she essentially treated Brexit as a question of damage limitation rather than a golden opportunity. (Many businesses, economists, diplomats and most of the U.K.’s allies around the world think that critique is utterly and completely fanciful like much surrounding Brexit, but it is strongly felt by many leavers nonetheless)
So where does it all leave her successor, whoever that might be?
The short answer is in a terrible hole and with, I suspect, zero honeymoon and not many options. He/she will inherit the leadership of a viscerally divided Conservative party where tensions over personality and policy are running high as they also do over the very purpose of the party. Is it an English nationalist leave party or what it was under Cameron, namely more liberal, pro-business and globalist in outlook.
Given the party’s 100,000 or so members tend to be very pro Brexit with or without a deal, Mrs May’s successor is likely to be a Brexiteer like Boris Johnson or at least an enthusiastic convert to the cause. But whoever it is will face the same Parliamentary arithmetic and likely refusal from the EU to reopen negotiations in any meaningful way.
In which case the most likely outcomes are either further delay, a no deal brexit or a general election. It’s hard to say.
Which brings me to my final point. Normally, in prosperous and stable democracies it shouldn’t be that hard for half way competent politicians and for that matter political correspondents, to make sensible predictions about the immediate future of the country.
These are clearly not normal times.