Why you should care
Familiar faces are lining up to replace Theresa May, but the job isn’t about to get any easier.
It’s 2016 all over again in British politics. The prospect of a humiliating defeat at the polls — this time the European elections — has forced Britain’s prime minister and Conservative Party leader to resign. Among the contenders to assume the throne are Boris Johnson, Andrea Leadsom and, quite possibly, Michael Gove. Déjà vu much?
How is it that the same politicians, having been defeated in a rather humiliating way only three years ago, are still plausible — and in Johnson’s case, considered the most likely — candidates for leading the country through one of its most challenging periods?
In June 2016, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron resigned when the referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union didn’t go his way. You’ll recall that the country narrowly voted in favor of Brexit, giving “leave” campaigners the win. What followed was a leadership contest for the Conservative Party in which the most prominent candidates proceeded to fall over themselves in a series of gaffes and backstabbing attempts.
Then, as now, Boris Johnson was considered the front-runner. He was, after all, one of the most prominent “leave” campaigners, and with broad public appeal — he had been mayor of London during the 2012 Olympics — he was seen as the obvious choice. Michael Gove, justice secretary at the time, had worked closely with Johnson on Brexit and was seen as his closest ally in the leadership bid.
May has dangled her resignation as a peace offering on two occasions, and today she formally announced that she’s stepping down on June 7.
Then, in a speech in which everyone expected Johnson to announce his candidacy, he ruled himself out of the running — shocking colleagues and British journalists alike. Gove, it turned out, had withdrawn his support for Johnson, having decided the floppy-haired politician was incapable of “leading the party and the country.” What some called a carefully planned political assassination ended up being political suicide. Gove launched a leadership bid himself, but the mark of betrayal that surrounded his candidacy didn’t get him very far. That left two other government ministers, Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom, to battle it out. But in an interview with The Times of London, Leadsom made a comment that was interpreted as her saying that being a mother made her a better candidate than May, who has no children. And with that, Leadsom was out.
Theresa May has been prime minister ever since, first by default and then as a result of the 2017 election she called. The Conservatives won, but lost their parliamentary majority, leading to a minority government. Delivering on Brexit has been May’s signature policy ambition, and also her defining failure. Last autumn, she finally reached an agreement with the EU over the terms of Britain’s withdrawal, but she has since failed to get it approved by Parliament.
The unpopularity of May’s deal even within her own party led to a vote of no confidence over her leadership last December, which she won. Even her worst enemies recognize that May has demonstrated tenacity and grit, having had her deal rejected by Parliament on three separate occasions. This has resulted in two extensions to the U.K.’s departure date, now set for Oct. 31.
This past week, May made a final, desperate attempt to galvanize support for a tweaked version of her deal by proposing that if it were approved, she would allow Parliament to decide on whether to hold a second referendum, something a number of MPs have wanted. Just hours after her announcement, all sides signaled that this was a nonstarter.
May has dangled her resignation as a peace offering twice before, and today she formally announced that she’s stepping down on June 7. Brits went to the polls for a European Parliament election yesterday — they wouldn’t have done so if Britain’s original leave date in March had been upheld. The Conservative Party, seen by many as having failed to deliver Brexit, is set to be trounced (results due on Sunday), and those seeking to replace May as prime minister — including Johnson and Leadsom — are already lining up.
In some ways, this is all May’s fault. She lacks the political skills of flexibility and diplomacy required to generate parliamentary consensus on Brexit. She also — perhaps as overcompensation for having supported “remain” in the referendum campaign — gave hard Brexiteers, including Johnson and Leadsom, positions of power that emboldened them, contributing to Parliament’s gridlock and this week’s calls for her departure.
Who becomes the next party leader, and hence prime minister, depends on the approximately 124,000 members of the Conservative Party who have the final say between a shortlist of two candidates selected by Conservative members of Parliament. Johnson is said to be very popular with party members, and his hard-Brexit stance is seen as capable of challenging Nigel Farage’s newly formed Brexit Party, predicted to come first in the European election. But Johnson is loathed by the opposition, and as leader of a minority government, he probably won’t be able to achieve much.
Whoever ends up replacing May will face exactly the same problems she did. As a set of “indicative votes” has shown, there is no majority in Parliament for a way forward on Brexit, so any future prime minister will probably have to call a general election and hope to shift the parliamentary balance in their favor. Of course that comes with the risk of the balance shifting in the other direction, and the Conservatives losing power altogether, leading to a more EU-friendly Labour government. This means the uncertainty over how (and whether) the U.K. will leave the EU is not about to end any time soon. But May’s political career probably just did.
Alexis Papazoglou is a regular contributor to The New Republic.