Another Conservative British Prime Minister has resigned over the failure to unite the Tory party over the exasperating and vexing issue of Britain’s relationship with Europe. Theresa May has now joined the ranks of Margaret Thatcher, John Major, and David Cameron as former prime ministers who have seen their power and authority ebb away before their very eyes. They have all been forced to take the walk of shame to the podium and announce their departure date in the full glare of the media. Every grimace and twitch is caught on camera and mercilessly analysed, scrutinized, and mocked. British politics can be a brutal and unforgiving blood sport.
The job of prime minister does not give the holder of the office the civilized and dignified interregnum of the U.S. presidency. In America, after losing office or when a new president is announced after an eight-year term, there is usually a two-month gentlemanly transfer of power from the occupant of the White House to the in-coming resident. Not so in Britain. When John Major lost the election in 1997 to Tony Blair, the results were announced early in the morning, and by noon, he had gone to Buckingham Palace to tender his resignation to the Queen. In fact, it is said that once an election has been called, the current resident of No. 10 Downing Street (the British Prime Minister’s official residence) has his or her belongings in such a way that were he or she to lose the election, they could be conveniently removed out of the way into the moving van, often parked at the back of No. 10 to spare the sitting prime minister the humiliation. In the UK, politics can be nasty and brutish for losers.
Theresa May, the only child of a vicar, became Britain’s second woman prime minister after Mrs. Thatcher in 2016, following David Cameron’s failed referendum on the status of Britain in the European Union. Ironically, the very issue that propelled her into office became her ultimate undoing. In many ways, she’d been handed a poisoned chalice. No Tory party leader has been able to successfully unite the Conservative Party over Europe. It is fair to say that the Conservative Party is largely a Euro-sceptic entity that has never been truly at home with the European idea. Europe has been the single issue guaranteed to divide Tories who are otherwise quite a disciplined group. Europe can also drive even the most mild-mannered of British politicians like John Major to use expletives in describing treacherous cabinet ministers.
Britain has always been semi-detached in its relationship with the rest of the continent ever since it joined the European Economic Community as it then was in 1973. I have some theories for this: First, as an island-nation perched on the north Atlantic, the UK has never physically or emotionally felt close to the continent, as say, other countries that share common borders and are therefore doomed to cooperate as a matter of survival. Second, linguistically and historically, Britain is different from the rest of Europe. Theresa May herself in a speech in Florence in 2017 which raised some eyebrows said, “because of our history and geography, the EU never felt to us like an integral part of our national story in the way that it does to so many elsewhere in Europe.” And she is right. For the major countries of Europe – France and Germany in particular – the dream of a single Europe, bound together politically and economically to rival the US has been a life-long ambition. For the newer members – largely former Soviet states of Eastern Europe – it makes perfect geopolitical sense to be part of a prosperous economic and ever-increasingly political bloc, away from the Moscow orbit. For Britain, the idea has never taken off, and that is why at the very first opportunity in over 40 years to vote on whether to leave or remain in the European Union, 52% of Brits opted to leave the EU and go it alone. Many people who voted for Brexit complain that the relationship between the UK and EU has gradually morphed from an economic bloc into a full-blown political union, and that is not the union Britain joined on January 01, 1973.
Back to Theresa May and what her departure means. May’s exit is not likely to change much. Several analysts suggest that her eventual resignation was inevitable and only a matter of time. She is not your usual sort of politician. She is famously not clubbable, is never seen around the bars of the House of Commons, does not engage in Westminster gossip, has a very awkward social demeanour, and does not do small talk. Many thought she would only survive as prime minister for only a few days or weeks. As she spoke in front of 10 Downing Street announcing her intention to resign to the rest of the world, we saw a tiny glimpse of the human behind the equipment that is Theresa May – she wept as she ended her speech by saying she was grateful “to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love.” The question on many lips on these islands is why had we not seen this human side of Theresa May in all these years as prime minister? She was for all intents and purposes a machine-like politician. The closest American example I can think of is Hillary Clinton. Both women are fiercely intelligent, have a terrific grasp on policy issues, but lack that bit of human and emotional intelligence – a touch that is, after all, the lifeblood of politics. If politics is nothing, it is a “people’s business.” As a politician, you must be able to connect on a deeper and personal level with ordinary people. Being considered aloof and out of touch is the sure and certain way of bringing a political career to a screeching halt.
Whoever replaces Mrs. May will be a reliable U.S ally. Indeed, the favourite to succeed her, the former Conservative mayor of London, Boris Johnson, was born in New York City, so Anglo-American ties are set to strengthen even further beyond the Royal Family and the Duchess of Sussex. What is also true is that whoever the next prime minister is, the arithmetic of the House of Commons will not change, and the agreement of support with the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland will have to be renewed, and the protracted question of the so-called “backstop,” the idea that there could never be a hard border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Irish Republic (part of the EU) in the event of a no-deal Brexit will remain. These thorny issues will be wrapped up in a pretty package with a big bow on the top and presented to the new First Lord of the Treasury (a.k.a. the prime minister)… so too will the continued splits within the Conservative Party over Britain’s future relations with Europe. As someone told me earlier, changing the singer won’t necessarily change the song.