Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Thursday 22 November 2018

Why Theresa May should not get anyone’s sympathy vote

She may have fortitude in the face of misfortune, and it is easy to feel sympathy for her in comparison to the Brexiters in the Conservative party. But to a large extent she has brought that all upon herself, from the moment she became Prime Minister. Here are some of her bigger mistakes.

  1. Appointing Brexiters to key posts in cabinet, including the minister who would be in day to day charge of the negotiations, and Boris Johnson. A clever wheeze, some political commentators opined, to make the Brexiters own the result. In reality not so clever when the aim of the Brexiters is not to get a deal. In the end she had to take over negotiations herself to get anywhere at all, and of course she owned the result.

  2. Rather than listening to experts on the EU, law and economics when formulating her plan, she listened to her political advisors whose only interests were in keeping the party together. As a result she wrote red lines that she has had to cross over to get a deal, and wasted a lot of time in between.

  3. If she had listened to anyone with even the slightest knowledge she would not have rushed to start the Article 50 process.

  4. Holding a General Election in 2017, in the middle of the negotiation process, and then holding on to power when that gambit failed by bribing the DUP with, as the Tories like saying, taxpayers money.

  5. Ignoring the Irish border for over a year. Then agreeing a deal on the Irish border in December 2017. Then declaring in the House of Commons that no Prime Minister could ever approve such a deal when the EU put that agreement in legal form.

Two things seem to have motivated her throughout this process: to appease the Brexiters, and to end Freedom of Movement. Both have influenced the Withdrawal Agreement, although not in ways she suggests. In the two years she could have been outlining a deal that brings the UK much closer to the EU, but she has quite deliberately done the opposite.

There is a story going round that she had no choice in all this. She had to appease the Brexiters at every turn because her survival depended on it. This is simply not the case. She has brought her present position on herself through her constant appeasement of the Brexiters. She could and should have marginalised the Brexiters at the very start of her premiership, when she was at her most powerful, and been honest with people about what the trade-offs were. The Brexiters would have huffed and puffed, but they never had enough support to bring her down, particular in the early months of her premiership. If she had done that, and listened to sound advice, the last two or more years would have been a much calmer and more rational period.

But she was not going to do that because of her obsession with ending freedom of movement and reducing immigration. May is the author of the hostile environment, that has inflicted suffering on so many people, just so she can try and meet some arbitrary target. Yet when Amber Rudd, her replacement as Home Secretary, had to deal with the flack that the hostile environment caused when the media discovered it was being applied to the Windrush generation and their descendants, May allowed Rudd to resign without a hint of apology from herself as author of the policy. Her recent description of migrants who came to the UK when we were in the EU as 'queue jumpers' is unfortunately all to typical of this Prime Minister. 

It is a mistake to see stubbornness as fortitude, particularly when the person’s misfortunes are entirely self-inflicted. It would be a serious mistake to be sympathetic when she is finally standing up to the mad Brexiters when she should have done this 2 years ago. Her failure has given us a deal which makes voters worse off and gives them less sovereignty. She has put this country in a position that we have only months before we leave with no deal, saying you take my deal or you have chaos. She has done all this with only one thing in her mind: it is a strategy that maximises her chances of staying leader for longer (see this post on perpetual Brexit). When you keep making serious mistakes, having someone who is stubborn and self-centred as Prime Minister is extremely dangerous.


  1. I agree with this 100 per cent.

    I am continually hearing people, good, kind people who are personally against Brexit, saying things like "You have to admire her perseverance", and "She's only doing her best in a difficult situation". I'm sorry, when you choose to be Prime Minister at one of the most difficult moments in our recent history, "doing your best" is simply not good enough. Your post shows very clearly that her "best" is a long way short of optimal policy, even without hindsight.

    But ultimately, her failure is the failure of a very large number of MPs - most but not all Conservative - who have allowed the advisory referendum to coerce them into making and following a policy in which they do not believe and which they know will make the country a worse place. History will not be kind.

  2. The silly thing I keep hearing is that the fixed term parliaments act will frustrate labour in seeking to have an early GE. What these people forget is that the PM needed a 2/3 majority to force an early election herself (as labour helped her to achieve in 2017, which worked in their favour as it turned out), but it requires only a simple majority to win a confidence vote (and one would think if she loses the deal vote, a confidence vote should be the next thing on the floor of the house). She would then get 14 days to try and form another government (seems unlikely...) and after that, a GE must be called.

    Personally, I think labour is right to press on with the above as ‘plan a’ because it would obviously offer them the opportunity to mitigate the damage of Brexit (either through a BrINO deal or no Brexit at all- presumably decided through a second referendum), but much more importantly it would then give them 5 years to start sorting out the horrible mess that the last 8 years of Tory domestic and economic policy has created.

    If labour were to simply push for a second referendum; they might fix Brexit but their winning hand (many people want something, anything, but a May Brexit) will have been given up, and in 2022, there’s every chance that the tories will have sorted themselves back out.

  3. Agreed. She doesn't deserve an ounce of sympathy. To add to the catalogue of unforced errors was also using eu residents as bargaining chips. It was stupid because it would have alienated Eropean leaders and not have worked anyway because nobody believed her anyway.

    The one thing she could have done to gain leverage in negotiations was to seriously ramp up no deal preparations about a year ago. Yes, this may have rattled the markets somewhat but it may have put Merkel on the back foot as German business would have been horrified at the prospect of no deal. Instead no real preparation was done and now we face the very real prospect of no deal.....

  4. I agree with the analysis and believe May has concentrated too much on immigration control. I suspect like Thatcher before her she wishes to prove everyone wrong when they advised "it cannot be done minister".

    With Thatcher it was wanting to prove Ted Heath wrong when he challenged her to sort out local government finances. Others had tried and failed and Heath was patronising in making the challenge. Well she was going to show him!

    I suspect Cameron made a similar challenge to May to get immigration down to 10s of thousands. That is I believe part of the motivation - for the hostile environment and for control of borders rather than freedom of movement - is to similarly show them all that she can succeed where others (mainly male) might fail.

    Just as Poll Vote riots preceded Thatcher's fall, growing demand for a People's Vote might yet be the catalyst for May's eventual demise.

  5. Your analysis fits well with her track record before becoming Prime Minister. The Government has failed to consult properly and set a strong vision for the future, which she is unsuited to do. A non-political grouping with experience of change mamagement could have achieved so much more.

  6. You are quite right of course but this isn't just a failure of a Prime Minister; it is a failure of the whole political class and, I suspect, the civil service, at least in part. One person simply couldn't come up with this utter farago on their own; it has to be a team effort. That is the truly alarming aspect of this.

  7. Speaking as a keen no deal brexit enthusiast I largely agree with you. For me, Theresa May's deal is far far worse than staying in the EU. Her favourite mantras, "Brexit means brexit", and "No deal is better than a bad deal", give a very clear picture of her policy if they are reversed 180 degrees.


Unfortunately because of spam with embedded links (which then flag up warnings about the whole site on some browsers), I have to personally moderate all comments. As a result, your comment may not appear for some time. In addition, I cannot publish comments with links to websites because it takes too much time to check whether these sites are legitimate.