Theresa May united her party in the end

May 24, 2019
September 14, 2019
UK Politics

In the hours after the 2016 referendum, when Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and other leaders of the victorious Leave campaign seemed more disoriented by their victory than prepared to take over the government, I predicted that Theresa May would become the next Prime Minister and Conservative leader. Not, as history has been rewritten to say, because all of her opponents imploded, but rather because she represented more than anyone else the sentiments and prejudices of the party in the countryside. A vicars daughter, May was identified with a localist English parochialism, which she had practiced for six years in the Home Office, suspicious of foreigners, innovation, intellectualism, and big ideas. By contrast, the more prominent Leavers, Johnson and Gove, were men of ideas. The campaign for Brexit may have been fought on the airwaves by those with dreams of free trade, tax reform, and new global role, but those who voted to Leave the EU did so in protest against innovation and change, not in favor of it.

May represented this better than anyone else, and it is now hard to remember how popular she was in the aftermath of a decade of Cameroon modernization. But it was a popularity built on sentiment. On an emotional high. Not on what May was in favor of, because she was in favor of nothing specific(Brexit means Brexit), but what she represented. And hence, she was always incredibly vulnerable to her image collapsing. When the strong, stubborn, and hardworking leader was replaced in public mind with the tone deaf and incompetent, the fall was immediate.

With the Prime Minister announcing her resignation date for June 7th, there are going to be a lot of pieces analyzing what went wrong. Some will express sympathy for her dedication, and the tenacity with which she fought for her deal, blaming its failure on others. This will be even more attractive a line for those in opposing parties to take now that they may soon be facing her assassins. Sympathy for May is safe for them now. Its the Tories who have to worry about it. Others will bemoan her perceived "lack" of political skills. They will argue she was too stubborn, failed to reach out until it was too late, appeased the right of her party, etc A third group, closer to the mark, will argue that little of that mattered. The forces set in motion by the 2016 referendum would have swallowed almost any Conservative leader between the jaws of expectation and the real life challenges of implementing Brexit.

May quite simply fell, not because she lost an election, or because she brought back an unpopular deal which was defeated, but because she refused to lead the party in the strategic direction its membership demanded and almost its entire elite concluded was necessary. Embracing the belief that No Deal is better than a Bad Deal or No Brexit. May's position collapsed when she conceded parliament's right to block No Deal, and she was ousted when she implied she might seek a referendum in preference to it. One could say both related to misreading the political situation, but it was a different political situation than the elite level Westminster one which obsesses the media.

May's lack of political skill is overrated. She has excellent parliamentary skills. May had in fact built up a vast political machine in Westminster, evident by her ability to mobilize a majority of parliamentary party in her favor during the leadership contest, but in the final phase, she was denied endorsement by the membership. This was to prove fatal. While at the time, May enjoyed strong support, peaking at 87% among the membership in her first year, the very fact that she had not been endorsed by a vote of the membership, and that she had not been endorsed over a supporter of Leave, left that support brittle. It was always easy for Tory members to argue they had never had a chance to vote for her, that she had been "foisted upon them", that there had been a "stitch up" to deny them a chance to vote for a Leaver.

This would prove critical because the actual battle was not fought in Westminster but in local Tory associations. What brought down May was not fellow MPs turning on her, but the victory of Hard Brexit forces at the constituency and association level. It was only when MPs realized that their entire constituency associations preferred Hard Brexit to a deal or anything else that it became impossible for them to vote for a deal. The conviction among Tory members that May, by refusing to leave the EU without a deal(and accepting an extension) now stood in the way of that policy made removing her their priority. May was not undermined by a cabal at the top. The Cabinet were the last to defect, the 1922 Committee of Backbenchers resisted for months. It was the failure to maintain grassroots support which doomed her.

This is unusual in British politics, and it is one reason why members of the cabinet and MPs keep trying to pretend to the media that they played a role in her overthrow. The alternative, that they have sacrificed their leader to the "mob" of the membership, and that they are about to elect someone they distrust and dislike in Boris Johnson solely in a bid to appease the same, is disturbing to contemplate. Johnson is not being chosen because of his "charisma" or "popularity" but because he has sold himself as able to carry out a specific task, one Tories feel is needed. An overwhelming majority of Conservative supporters not only believe that No Deal is desirable but that it is possible, and as long as the latter is true, they have no reason to accept any compromises on the former.

Politically too they have a case.The problem, the Conservative party faces is a microcosm of the one the country does. While the referendum was a vote of the entire electorate, all other elections in the UK are not. They are constituency based, and while Leave won by a mere 52-48 margin in the popular vote, it carried almost 64% of Westminster constituencies. Parliament therefore has been responsive not to a 52% Leave majority but to a 64% one. Efforts at a 2nd referendum have been undermined from the start by the fact that the contest moved to a much less favorable electoral arena. It is quite possible that a majority of Westminster seats have pluralities if not majorities that favor Hard Brexit.

The obvious move then for the Conservatives is to follow Konrad Adenauer's dictum about where the German Christian Democrats should position themselves. "No space to the right!." Ie. the Christian Democrats should be as close to center as they can be while not allowing enough space to their right for any party to get the 5% needed to enter parliament. The success of the Brexit party has convinced Tories, even Remainers, that they cannot win with a viable party to their Right. The extent of it and the electoral map, make many suspect that on the contrary, they can win by absorbing the force to their right. Recent polling, combined with creative math adding support for the Brexit party with that of the Conservatives reinforces this view.

The strategic necessity of such a move has to be clear even to those within the party who know the disasters it would entail as a policy. There simply is no longer any political alternative. The idea of any deal is now so toxic to the membership, that even concessions on the backstop would likely see 40+ defections. While a year ago hopes might have existed that Labour could make up the gap, there too, party sentiment, combined with cold self-interest, mitigates against providing the votes to pass any deal proposed by a Conservative government. At least without a confirmatory referendum, which would function as a poison pill.

If a Conservative government cannot pass any deal, then the strategic imperative is obvious. The new leader must endeavor to deliver No Deal, even if they fail to do so. Here, analysis that "Parliament has rejected no deal" misses the point. The strategic imperative for the Conservative party is not for No Deal to happen. Rather it is for the party to try to deliver it. It must deliver it in an environment, as well, where supporters of No Deal believe the government can bypass parliament to do so by simply running out the clock. The solution is obvious. The government needs to force a showdown with Parliament in which it opts for No Deal, Parliament instructs it not to do so, the government refuses, and Parliament votes out the government triggering an election.

Defeat in such an election leaves the Conservatives able to blame Labour for any sellout. Victory at least provides five years of insulation from consequences.

This brings us back to May. She fell not because of her deal or efforts to compromise. She survived a no confidence vote in December after both. May fell when it became clear she would not lead the party in pursuit of the strategy the overwhelming majority felt it must follow.


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