When Theresa May took over as Britain’s Prime Minister in July 2016, she described herself as a “bloody difficult woman” and vowed; “Brexit means Brexit and we will make a success of it.”
Nearly three years later, Ms. May has been driven out of office by her own party, done in by a failure to deliver on Brexit and a leadership style many Conservative colleagues felt had become robotic and uncompromising. With the Tories plunging in most opinion polls and her Brexit agreement with the European Union in tatters, Ms. May had little choice but to resign.
“I have done everything I can to convince MPs to back that deal. Sadly, I have not been able to do so,” she said in an emotional address outside No. 10 Downing Street on Friday. With tears welling up in her eyes, Ms. May expressed her “deep regret” at not delivering Brexit and added: “I will shortly leave the job that it has been the honour of my life to hold. The second female Prime Minister, but certainly not the last. I do so with no ill-will, but with enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love.”
She will formally step down as party leader on June 7, clearing the way for a leadership race that’s expected to conclude in mid-July. She’ll remain Prime Minister until the new leader is in place. The contest to succeed her is already underway with several cabinet ministers launching campaigns.
Her departure does little to ease the Brexit turmoil. The United Kingdom is set to leave the EU on Oct. 31 and the country is now more likely to leave without any agreement on trade, transportation, banking and a host of other issues. The front runner to replace Ms. May is former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, a harsh critic of the Prime Minister’s Brexit strategy who supports a no-deal Brexit and trading with Europe on World Trade Organization terms. “We will leave the EU on October 31, deal or no deal,” Mr. Johnson said Friday. “The way to get a good deal is to prepare for a no deal.”
Ms. May’s downfall was largely due to her inability to form a national consensus on Brexit and breach the long-standing divide within the Conservative Party between Euroskeptics who want to cut all ties with the EU and Europhiles who want to keep some links. She’s the fourth consecutive Conservative prime minister to be felled by the Europe issue, after Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron.
It all began so promisingly for her. She became Tory leader by acclamation just weeks after Mr. Cameron resigned as prime minister in the wake of the Brexit referendum, which saw 52 per cent of voters back leaving the EU. She’d earned a reputation as a dogged, if stodgy, cabinet minister and Conservative Members of Parliament saw her as the steady hand needed to fulfill the referendum result. And while she rarely showed much vision or personality, her background as the only child of a vicar and a diabetic who took insulin injections up to five times a day gave her a human dimension that seemed to resonate with people. She even talked openly after taking office about her inability to have children and her bookish childhood, where the most outrageous thing she ever did was run through a field of wheat, much to the annoyance of farmers.
At first, she took a tough line on Brexit, insisting that the U.K. would leave the EU single market and customs union, which allow for the free movement of goods and services. She drew a series of red lines and ruled out any Norway-style option, which would keep the U.K. in some EU institutions. “There will be no attempts to remain inside the EU," she said boldly. But her plans seemed vague and she kept her strategy largely under wraps, even from her cabinet. By catering mainly to Euroskeptic Tories, she also alienated other Tory MPs and opposition parties who might have been open to a compromise.
In March 2017, she triggered the EU exit mechanism, known as Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which launched a two-year negotiating period and put the U.K. on course to leave the bloc by March 29, 2019. Then she gambled and called a snap election. It proved to be a disastrous move.
Ms. May looked awkward on the campaign trail and failed to connect with voters who were far more concerned with other issues than Brexit. She squandered a 21 point lead in the polls and the Tories lost their majority in the House of Commons. Instead of the “strong and stable” leadership she promised, Ms. May scrambled to form a minority government with the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, or DUP.
From then on, her Brexit strategy became muddled and bogged down by increasing criticism from Euroskeptic Tory MPs who feared she was drifting away from a hard Brexit. By the time she struck a deal with the EU in November 2018, she’d agreed to a customs arrangement, a two-year transition period and a provision that would keep the Irish border open by aligning Northern Ireland to EU regulations. For many Tories and the DUP, that wasn’t their idea of Brexit and they joined the opposition in voting it down in Parliament. Ever more isolated, Ms. May pressed ahead, determined to tweak the agreement to win over critics. But it was rejected two more times by the House of Commons and she had to seek an extension to the March 29 deadline, something she repeatedly said she wouldn’t do. Last month, she reached out to the Opposition Labour Party to find a way out of the impasse, but it was too little too late and only infuriated more Tory MPs.
“I do think it went wrong for her almost immediately because she made the decision to go for a much harder Brexit than would have been necessary to pull the country, and indeed Parliament, together behind her,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “From that moment on she was doomed.” As Prime Minister, he added, “you need to be much faster on your feet and much more emotionally intelligent than I think she as a politician has ever shown herself to be.”
Tony Travers, director of the Institute of Public Affairs at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said Ms. May waited too long to seek a coalition. Her decision early on “to effectively say, the 52 per cent who voted leave mattered and the other 48 can go away” was a grave miscalculation. Ms. May "clearly is not cutout for flexible, sensitive negotiations.”
There’s little indication that Mr. Johnson will have any more success. EU leaders have said they will not renegotiate the deal and most MPs oppose a no-deal Brexit. But the rise of the newly formed Brexit Party, under the leadership of arch Euroskeptic Nigel Farage, has spooked many Tories and pushed them toward backing a no-deal exit. That includes Lance Forman, a life-long Conservative who now supports the Brexit Party. Ms. May “was just the wrong person right from the start,” said Mr. Forman, who said that Ms. May voted to remain in the EU. “You have to believe in [Brexit], otherwise you are not going to be able to carry people with you in a tough negotiation. And you’ll never negotiate as well if you don’t believe in it.”