The end of the road
The prime minister has run out of options. She will leave the country even more divided than she found it
Theresa May has devoted her time in Downing Street to a single task: getting Britain out of the European Union. In November she cleared the first hurdle when she signed a draft Brexit deal with her opposite numbers in Brussels. But its terms were so much worse than those she had promised at home that she has been unable to get the deal through Parliament. MPs have rejected it three times, by crushing margins. Under pressure from her party, Mrs May has promised to quit if she fails on her fourth and final attempt. Even though the vote is not due until next month, it became clear this week that the deal was indeed doomed when her last-ditch attempt to win over doubters backfired spectacularly and triggered the resignation of a senior minister. At the same time, the Conservative Party is set to take a drubbing in European elections at the hands of Nigel Farage and his new Brexit Party. Britain will soon have a new prime minister.
Historians may be a fraction kinder to Mrs May than today’s commentators. But the prime minister’s ineptitude has rendered the fiendishly hard Brexit project almost impossible. Faced with the many painful trade-offs that Brexit entails, Mrs May refused to accept that compromise was necessary until too late—after others’ positions had hardened and compromise was defined as losing. Many Leavers now believe that a perfect, costless version of Brexit exists, which they are being denied only through some mix of incompetence and conspiracy. At the same time many Remainers, seeing the government constantly in retreat, believe that Brexit could yet be cancelled altogether.
This polarisation is Mrs May’s legacy—and it will bedevil her successor. In the aftermath of the referendum, nearly three years ago, many Brexiteers might have accepted a deal in which Britain left the single market and ended free movement, with temporary membership of the customs union as the only tie. Most now see such an outcome as an intolerable betrayal (never mind that some of them still seem unsure what a customs union actually is).