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'She's banjaxed': The slow-motion fall of Theresa May

May officially resigned today.

Updated 24 May

THERESA MAY’S TOPPLE from the pinnacle of British power had been predicted for quite a while – and this morning, it came to pass.

It came after what she called her final push for a new Brexit plan isolated more of her supporters, when it did the “classic Theresa May” deed of trying to make everyone happy and pleasing no one.

Then Andrea Leadsom, a senior Brexiteer in May’s party and who challenged Theresa May for the Tory leadership in 2016, resigned earlier this week over May’s handling of the slowly-unfolding crisis.

“I no longer believe that our approach will deliver on the referendum results,” Leadsom said in her resignation letter.

A number of Cabinet members requested a meeting with May, in what was expected to be a push for her to resign from the role – and this all unfolded on the eve of the European elections, where the Tories are expected to lose massively.

May cancelled all meetings that were due to be held with senior figures, signalling the end was near. This morning, she stood outside 10 Downing Street and delivered what is probably her final speech as official Prime Minister, to say that she was to step down as Conservative Party leader.

May will stay on until a successor is appointed. 

In her speech, she detailed the battle she’d had to try and get her Brexit deal passed.

But as she neared the end of her speech, where she spoke of her pride in doing an important job in serving “the country I love”, her voice broke. 

Salisbury incident Theresa May leaves Smith England hairdressers after a visit in Salisbury. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

She had hinted at this on Tuesday, when she revealed “ten legal changes” to her Brexit deal:

I have tried everything I possibly can to find a way through. It is true that initially I wanted to achieve this predominantly on the back of Conservative and DUP votes… But it was not enough. So I took the difficult decision to try to reach a cross-party deal on Brexit.
I offered to give up the job I love earlier than I would like.

A slow-motion downfall

It’s been a long road to get to this point. We’ve had endless uses of the words “last-ditch attempt” in relation to May’s Brexit policies, and had columns heralding the end of Theresa May’s tenure at 10 Downing Street, only for her to last weeks or months more.

In 2017, George Osborne told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that Theresa May was “a dead woman walking” after she lost the Conservative’s majority in the June 2017 general election. (May ended up forming a government with the support of the DUP’s 10 MPs, which now will not vote for her Brexit deal over concerns about the backstop).

“Theresa May is a dead woman walking, it’s just how long is she going to remain on death row… I think we will know very shortly, we could easily get to the middle of next week and it all collapse, or if it doesn’t, it will be delayed.”

Conservative Party annual conference 2018 Theresa May dances as she arrives on stage. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

After the historic defeat of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement in January (which was rejected by 432 votes to 202 in the House of Commons), commentators said that in previous similar situations, such a vote would be “unsurvivable”.  

At the time, the Daily Mail said May’s power was left “hanging by a thread”, and one commentator in The Times described her as a “zombie prime minister”.

But she survived the motion of no confidence tabled by Labour with relative ease, as rebel Tories and the DUP sided with May rather than facing a general election or risking propelling Jeremy Corbyn to 10 Downing Street.

This also meant that another motion of no confidence couldn’t be called for another year; despite her having no clout in parliament to pass her Brexit deal, or any other government legislation, she was to remain in power for the foreseeable, leading to the phrase “she’s in office, but not in power” being used often. 

Repeated attempts at coups, or predictions of her resignation have been based on frustration with her Brexit deal and failure to control her Cabinet, but ultimately May has stayed in power due to the time constraint the UK has been under to negotiate a Brexit deal before the various Brexit deadlines, and the reluctance from other candidates in taking on the task of uniting a country that seems irrevocably divided.

Now that there is more time to hold a Tory leadership contest, and off the back of what looks like a strong surge for the Brexit party, the pathway seems more clear for those vying to be the next leader of the Conservative Party (cc: Boris Johnson, Andrea Leadsom, Dominic Raab, and Jeremy Hunt).

Fin?

BRITAIN-LONDON-BREXIT DEAL-REJECTION A snapshot of the House of Commons during the historic defeat of Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement in January. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

On the Sean O’Rourke Show earlier this week, The London Times’ parliamentary sketch writer Quentin Letts said that Theresa May is “banjaxed”.

“She’s a goner and with her goes this Bill, I think. It’s not entirely clear because she’s holed up in Downing Street like a woodlouse… you know when you touch a woodlouse and it curls up into a ball? Well she’s doing that basically at the moment and it’s an odd day that we face in politics.”

So what has pushed her to the end of her premiership so suddenly? A mixture of another big Brexit announcement that amounted to nothing, pushing forward with a plan that pleases no one, and having the time and space to appoint a new Tory leader.

The signs for a quick resignation were there when the publishing of May’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which was scheduled for today, was cancelled.

May had said previously that if the Bill failed, the choice would be a no-deal Brexit or else revoking Article 50. If Boris Johnson is appointed as the next Prime Minister, the former of those two options is almost inevitable.

So what’s next?

DUP conference 2018 The DUP's Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds flank Boris Johnson at the DUP annual conference in Belfast. Source: Michael Cooper

The European elections have just been held in the UK; it’s widely predicted that the Brexit party will win the lion’s share of the MEP seats, in what will be another crushing electoral defeat for the Tory party. Perhaps good timing then for May to step down.

The results will be announced on Sunday, along with the other EU elections results from across Europe.

Notably, US President Donald Trump will visit the UK between Monday 3 and Wednesday 5 June. Jeremy Hunt had earlier said that May will be Prime Minister when Trump visits, and indeed undoubtedly she will still be in place.

When David Cameron resigned in 2016, he stayed on as Prime Minister while the Tories selected a new leader. In that race, Theresa May was chosen after candidates took each other out or self-sabotaged their chances. 

Whoever is chosen next will have to negotiate a minority government with the DUP, who you’d imagine, would be happy to remain in government for a bit longer. After that, expect talks with EU officials, rumours of renegotiating the Withdrawal Agreement, and statements proclaiming a no-deal Brexit “more likely than ever”.

A general election in the UK is likely in that time; Peter Wilding, a former adviser of David Cameron’s and the first person to use the word ‘Brexit’, reckons that a general election will be held in October, another extension will be requested from the EU by 31 October, and ultimately, Brexit won’t happen at all.

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