By Arab News
By Chris Doyle*
The prime minister who endlessly promised a “strong and stable” government is tumbling out of Downing Street. A tear in her eye, Theresa May’s resignation statement was long in the making and painful to watch. She has left British politics worse than weak and wobbly. As last Wednesday’s headline in the country’s most pro-Conservative newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, screamed: “Desperate, deluded, doomed.” Her former colleagues queued up to make the customary, trite platitudes, few of which convinced.
Opinion is divided. Some saw her task as worthy of Sisyphus. She could not roll the Brexit boulder up to the top of the mountain amidst the baying hounds on the various wings of her party. But her mistakes and errors of judgement did pile up. Others point to her failure to compromise, only reaching out to the Labour at the last moment; the calamitous decision to call elections in 2017; pandering to the far right of the party; and her totally unempathetic response to the Grenfell Tower fire disaster. From the autumn of 2016, when she opted for a hard Brexit, she had left little room for maneuver. The speech in March where she blamed everyone else was a low point.
May is hard-working, resilient and has a strong sense of public duty, but she is also disconnected, unable to reach out to others or to bring people together. She becomes the fourth Tory leader to lose their job over Europe.
The country does not have time for a protracted post-mortem. As May said, Brexit is “the biggest peacetime challenge any government has faced.” The Oct. 31 deadline for leaving the EU will fast approach. Increasingly, it looks like it will be a choice between no deal and revoking Article 50 to cancel Brexit.
A new Tory leadership contest will kick off three days after May formally stands down on June 7. Candidates will formally enter then, but already the number of hats in the ring is rising at every news cycle. One estimate had 24 Tory MPs considering making a run. This will shrink fast.
Favorite Boris Johnson was fast out of the blocks with a speech in Switzerland. His campaign was boosted as leading Remainers Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Amber Rudd, the Work and Pensions Secretary, both indicated they could back him. Other candidates could include the Brexiteers Dominic Raab, Penny Mordaunt and Michael Gove, with Jeremy Hunt, Matt Hancock and Rory Stewart from the Remainer camp. Lightweights such as the ambitious Priti Patel will fall by the wayside.
Candidates have varying messages. Delivering Brexit is the chief one. Not one candidate is standing on a pro-Remain or even pro-second referendum platform. Uniting the party is the next key issue, though quite how anyone plans to perform this magic trick is unclear, as the Conservative Party is savagely split. The final message is an appeal to back someone who would defeat Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. Given that a general election is likely at some stage in the next 12 months, this also matters.
What will be interesting is the way in which non-Brexit issues find their way into the debate. Britain does have non-Brexit challenges, such as the increase in knife crime, the health service and the future of education. Remember that whoever wins this leadership race will also be taking the party into the next election and laying out their agenda for change.
Whoever wins will have to take up the task faced with the same parliamentary arithmetic and the same raw divisions that so troubled May. Johnson was clear: “We will leave the EU on Oct. 31 — deal or no deal.” The hard Brexiteers push the argument that, where May failed with the EU, they can succeed. In their view, Brussels will give them what they refused to give May on the basis that a true Brexiteer would be prepared to leave with no deal. EU officials think otherwise. “We would be really stupid if we had refused the reasonable negotiators and now suddenly reopen the door to Boris. I don’t think so,” one official was quoted as saying.
Yet Parliament has ruled out leaving without a deal and the numbers will not change absent a general election. This could happen but many Tories fear an election taking place before they have delivered on Brexit. Why? It would give the Brexit Party another turbo-charged boost at the polls, dangerously splitting much of the pro-leave vote. Many think it would be better to go to the polls with Brexit delivered and job done.
Nigel Farage’s insurgent Brexit Party has stolen the show, not least in the European elections that it dominated. In the space of six weeks, he has transformed British politics and threatened the stale two-party system. This threat will cast a deep, dark shadow over the Conservative elections. His message of betrayal and surrender has broken through. He has gobbled up the support of all those who wanted to get out of the EU and who think Westminster has failed them, tapping into the raw fury and bitterness. Moreover, Farage has understood that politics needs to be more fun, dramatic and accessible. His rallies are like rock concerts, more akin to Donald Trump rallies. It is populism on steroids and some are getting addicted, which for the Tories must be terrifying.
The Conservative Party has to face up to arguably the greatest challenge in its 185-year history, as highlighted by its historic thrashing in the European elections. The leadership vote may show whether it is up to it or, as many believe, it is so fractured as to be beyond salvation.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech