Theresa May's Brexit Disaster The Prime Minister of Humiliation

Despite facing one embarrassment after the other, British Prime Minister Theresa May continues to plow ahead, seemingly undeterred. It's becoming increasingly clear that she is the main impediment to solving the Brexit mess.
British Prime Minister Theresa May

British Prime Minister Theresa May

Foto: Henry Nicholls / REUTERS

In June of 2017, about a year after the Brexit referendum, the BBC dedicated a show to the British prime minister. At that point, Theresa May had been in office for 11 months and had been Home Secretary for six years before that. Her severe face, her garish shoes and her gangly walk were familiar to every British boarding-school student. But May also remained strangely alien to her fellow Brits. There were no anecdotes about her and very few memorable quotes. Nobody really knew who she actually was.

The BBC reporter set out to solve the riddle -- and was forced to admit in the end that he wasn't any smarter than he had been at the beginning. None of the old school friends and associates he interviewed seemed to have truly gotten close to her. But, amazingly, they all agreed about one thing: If she were ever stumbled, it would be because of her inability to build bridges. "She lacks the ability to form a gang."

Shortly before 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May was sitting in a jam-packed British parliament. She had just been badly humiliated by her own Conservative Party once again, but nobody seemed willing to stand by her. May sat sunken, ashen, with one of those chunky necklaces around her neck that look like they could drag her into the abyss at any moment. She was alone. Even her voice had left her.

But then she stood up, uttered words of regret and proceeded to announce the next steps. She apparently wanted to keep going. Onwards and onwards. As if nothing momentous had happened at all.

Yet something momentous had happened. This week, 17 days before the date when the United Kingdom is set to leave the European Union, British parliament rejected the divorce deal for the second time. And once again, it did so by such an overwhelming majority that the last remnants of Theresa May's control over events -- if she ever had it in the first place -- evaporated. Whatever happens now is no longer up to her.

Despite massive pressure exerted on her own fellow Conservatives, despite blatant attempts to lure the opposition with money, despite tentative concessions from Brussels, and despite nightmarish predictions for what would happen if she failed, May hasn't managed to win over a single one of the opposing factions in parliament in recent weeks. The Brexiteers, the fans of a second referendum, the supporters of a soft deal: They all marched together, shoulder to shoulder on Tuesday, issuing to May an unequivocal: "No."

May has merely been reacting to events for quite some time now. Rather than building bridges, she has burned them. And even though MPs have now voted against a no-deal exit from the EU and in favor of extending the deadline, it is unclear what that extra time should be used for.

And by whom.

It has become increasingly clear that May has led her country, her party and herself into a labyrinth, and that she apparently has neither the power nor the ideas that will allow them to find a way out. Brexit would have been a momentous challenge for any prime minister, but May's stubbornness and ineptness have made it even more difficult. Because of this, Brexit has become, for many, a referendum on May herself.

'She is Rude. She is Cruel'

The degree to which this week's events had to do with May herself became clear from the off-the-record admission from one MP, who said he despised the prime minister too much to ever vote for one of the deals she presented. And he's not the only one.

It has been a dramatic plunge: When she first moved into Downing Street almost three years ago, she was more popular than any head of government had been in quite some time.

"I was wrong about her," says Matthew Parris, staring morosely into his cup of tea. It's Tuesday morning, about 10 hours before the Brexit showdown, and Parris, a man of exquisite politeness, is searching for words in his East London apartment. Finding his voice is not normally a problem for him: Parris, 69, is one of the country's most in-demand pundits. He works for the BBC, writes columns for the Times and is often asked to comment on the Conservatives. He spent seven years in parliament as a member of the party.

From his living room, Parris has a wonderful view of the Thames, which is rather rough on this day. On the balcony, the storm winds are tossing around a City of London life preserver.

Following the shocking outcome of the referendum in June 2016, Parris, like many others, thought May was the right person to stabilize the increasingly unsettled UK. "I thought she was calm, wise and well-judged, if not particularly exciting." He had met her on several occasions and had nothing negative to say about her, except perhaps that she could be particularly nasty when talking about colleagues. "She's quite a good hater." But nothing that Parris found particularly unsettling.

The first doubts arose when the prime minister had him over for tea about six months after she took power. Even by then, it had become clear that May was courting the right-wing Brexiteers in her party even though she had campaigned to remain in the EU.

"I warned her about doing so," says Parris. "I told her that nothing she could offer would ever satisfy the right-wingers." But he says May had only stared at him in silence. "And when she spoke, it was only phrases I had heard or read before. She didn't even try to explain herself or to win me over. It was the longest 30 minutes of my life."

Still, he continued defending her in his columns for quite some time. But then he began hearing from a growing number of officials, lawmakers and ministers the extent to which May had isolated herself, how unreachable she had become, and the levels of frustration among those surrounding her.

"She is mean. She is rude. She is cruel. She is stupid. I have heard that from almost everyone who has dealt with her," Parris says. He said he had never expected this much hatred, "and that is not a word I use lightly."

The worst thing, though, he says, is May's inability to win over others to her position, to compromise and to lead. "It's crazy," says Parris. "That someone like her would end up in a job where the most important thing is to communicate, answer questions, make decisions. That is, I believe, more of a psychological than a political problem."

Alienating Potential Friends

The list of May's failures is long. When the country needed a call for reconciliation after the Brexit referendum, the vicar's daughter from Eastbourne was silent. Unlike Churchill during the Second World War ("blood, toil, tears and sweat"), Thatcher during the conflict with the EU ("not a European super-state") or Blair before the Iraq War ("the threat is real"), she left a country in turmoil to its own devices.

She vacillated for months before making her first decisions on Brexit. And almost all of them were wrong. She formulated red lines she later had to walk back. She uttered phrases that turned out to be as hollow as they sounded ("no deal is better than a bad deal").

But above all else, she irredeemably miscalculated which Brexit the British parliament would ultimately be willing to vote for. May could have known from the beginning that a majority would only vote for a soft exit and that she would have to establish a close future relationship with the EU. But to do this, she would have had to compromise with the opposition. She did the opposite.

Although May emphasized that what mattered for her was the "will of the people" -- she was mostly thinking about her own party. A softer path would have scared off the EU-haters among the Conservatives and potentially divided the Tories. For a party soldier like May, it was an apparently unbearable thought.

For Theresa May, the Tories were always more than just a group of people with similar political beliefs. She lost her parents when she was young, has no siblings and few friends, and met her husband Philip at a Conservative Party ball in Oxford. Companions of hers claim May married twice -- once to Philip and once to the Tories. To this day, despite an almost inhuman workload in Downing Street, she still regularly attends party events in her district. May's life is the party.

She therefore never dared clamp down on the Brexit-fantasists associated with Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, and their illusions of national greatness. She instead repeatedly caved to pressure from her party's ultra-rightist European Research Group -- which has as much to do with research as horoscopes do with astronomy. Their demands became increasingly shameless. They were never satisfied.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 12/2019 (March 16th, 2019) of DER SPIEGEL.

And while May tried in frustration to satisfy the right-wingers on the margins, she apparently didn't notice that she was alienating all of her other potential partners: the moderates and left-wingers among the Tories, the opposition -- and, not least, the decision-makers in Brussels.

At first, they were impressed by how May simply swallowed her repeated humiliations. But by January at the latest, when May distanced herself from the withdrawal agreement she herself negotiated with the EU, this was a thing of the past. "Heads of state and government notice that kind of thing," says an EU diplomat. Recently, the interactions of the representatives of the 27 EU states with their London visitor have been imbued with only barely concealed schadenfreude. "It is difficult to give people a helping hand if they have both of their hands in their pockets," said Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen.

A Grim Pioneer

In Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, the prime minister recently asked European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker which guarantees could be made that she wouldn't have to negotiate with a euroskeptic like Italy's Matteo Salvini. Juncker supposedly asked what guarantee could be made that he wouldn't have to negotiate with a Brexit hardliner like Boris Johnson.

The United Kingdom isn't yet out of the EU. But the country has already dramatically lost importance on the world stage. After this week's voting marathon, the fate of Theresa May and her government are now even more dependent on the goodwill of Brussels. Given the current situation, the EU won't make things easier for the Brits.

Rarely, if ever, has a British prime minister become as frequent and public a laughing stock as Theresa May. The Conservative has become a political pioneer, albeit not the one she could have ever hoped to be: She is the first head of government to have been found in contempt of parliament; the first to have lost nearly two dozen ministers and secretaries of state within two years; the first to have had her central political project twice voted down by overwhelming majorities; and the first to, despite all this, remain in power -- at least to this point.

Theresa May has redefined the limits of personal mortification in politics. And she seems to want to continue ploughing through, as if people's anger is her fuel. It is reflective of the strangeness of the times that she still could be the one to maneuver Brexit over the finish line, when she puts her deal up to a vote for the third time in the coming week.

To reach this goal, she is once again looking for support from the far-right Tories. They are making it increasingly clear what the price would be for their vote: May's resignation. What an ending that would be, if she sacrificed herself to salvage a party that may not be salvageable.

But May could still choose a different path. For that, she would need to become a person she never was. She would need to listen -- even just to herself.

On Monday afternoon, Commonwealth Day, Theresa May read a Bible passage in Westminster Abbey. "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you.' Nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you.'" It was Paul's letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12, verse 21.

Perhaps May recognized herself.

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