By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg*
It is a truism that all political careers end in failure, yet some are more distinguished by their failure than others. This is no doubt that British prime minister Theresa May’s premiership has been abysmal and torturous, for her and for most who live in the UK, and that her early departure was inevitable. She leaves office with no major accomplishment to her name.
To be sure, for all her personal and political failures one must have some sympathy for her, and wonder if anyone else would have done a better job under the impossible circumstances she was thrown into, mainly the debacle of Brexit.
Ultimately, she was dealt a bad hand that made it virtually impossible to accomplish the UK’s exit from the European Union. Yet, her negotiations with Brussels were characterized by overtures rather than substance, and by rigidity rather than the necessary flexibility that this rather poor political operator sorely lacks.
As soon as the 2016 Brexit referendum result was announced, the premiership became a poisoned chalice. May exacerbated the problem with her style of leadership and personal characteristics, both utterly unsuitable for such a complex and divisive issue. Yet though her leadership was weak and unimaginative, the entire political system must also shoulder much of the blame.
Brexit is not to blame for the fragmentation of British society; it merely exposed it at its worst. It was David Cameron who opened this Pandora’s box and bequeathed to his successor what now looks like the almost impossible task of bringing the country together again.
May faced an unprecedented situation from her first day in office.
There were too many bruised egos within her party that would not accept her leadership or grant her the benefit of the doubt. Boris Johnson led the pack, but Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom and their ilk were never far behind, piling up the misery on her time in 10 Downing Street, constantly vying to replace her.
Her apparent distress in front of one of the most famous doors in the world as she announced her intention to resign was no doubt genuine, but no tears could disguise that this prime minister lacks any human capacity to express regret, or to admit to of her mistakes. Perhaps the moment was too soon and raw for her, but at least a hint of self-reflection would have given the emotions that overcame her some meaning for the rest of the country.
Not only has May failed the country, but she also leaves behind a Conservative party at one of its lowest ebbs, having just lost more than a thousand seats in local elections, and been almost wiped out in the recent European elections — and in doing so helping the most populist of Brexiteers to gain more seats in the European Parliament than any other party.
She inherited a parliament in which she enjoyed a majority, only to misguidedly call a snap election in 2017 that wiped out that majority and left her at the mercy of an uncompromising Northern Ireland sectarian party. This further calls into question her political instincts and understanding.
Moreover, to wait until way beyond the 11th hour to invite the main opposition, Labour, to look for common ground over Brexit, was too little and much too late to create a national consensus. It was more of a public relations stunt than a genuine effort to get the country out of the mess that her predecessor had got it into.
Brexit dominated the May administration’s agenda. However, as much as she tried to paint herself as a one-nation Conservative, she was anything but. She paid nothing but lip service to public health and education services, and did next to nothing to help the young in their struggle to get on the housing ladder, leaving them to either suffer the burden of high rents, or be enslaved to equally punishing mortgage rates.
The country’s high employment levels are only a thin veil over the ongoing predicament of young and old who work in low-paid and insecure jobs, let alone those who live in poverty or the lower middle classes who must struggle every day to make ends meet.
While May, in announcing her intention to resign, mentioned a few abstract achievements, when it comes to tangible accomplishments hardly any can be found.
Whether she is a Brexiteer at heart or not, we may never know, but her hostility to migrants, which is closely correlated with Brexit, is well documented from her days as Home Secretary, when she showed no understanding either of the UK economy’s need for migrant labor, nor of the of positive, though challenging, contribution that diversity has brought to the country.
The Windrush scandal and antagonism toward migrants will forever be associated with May’s time in government, along with her contribution to the spread of division in the UK, and with it anti-European sentiment.
Few will be upset at Theresa May’s abrupt departure, but when one looks at who might replace her, it is not beyond reasonable doubt that in a short while we might miss her. This, in a nutshell, represents the tragedy of contemporary British politics.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg