There was a time when few people outside the UK would have known or cared when its Prime Minister was leaving office. However the Brexit saga has ensured that everyone now knows that poor Theresa May, after three years of trying to force the UK parliament to do what she herself campaigned against, will be standing down on Friday June 7th 2019.
Commentators are saying that her departure eventually became inevitable because she couldn’t get Brexit through parliament and her own Cabinet was hopelessly split on the issue – even more so when you consider that dozens of ministers had already resigned from her government, and only the most loyal stayed on until the end. It was this factor which Theresa blamed for her departure in her emotional announcement outside 10 Downing Street.
However Theresa never stood a chance, as either Prime Minister or leader of the Conservative Party. She inherited a party which knew it was divided over Brexit, and a country which did not then realise how divided it would become over it.
As she stated, she came into office full of good intentions about making the UK work better for more and more people. But as Brexit became more and more complicated, providing no formula for either getting out of the EU nor staying in was able to win enough parliamentary support, she wasn’t able to address any other issue. Either she made Brexit happen, and then made it work, or she was toast, and as it would be impossible to make Brexit work even if it happened, Theresa was certain to depart the day she took office.
Maybe all this was still predictable. But what few could have foreseen when Theresa kissed hands with The Queen was that she wouldn’t only be forced out by resignation or by losing an election.
Theresa leads one of the largest and most successful political parties in the world. But for the first time in its history there is serious doubt that the Conservative Party will even exist by the time the next UK parliamentary election is due in 2022.
The Tories have been split before, over any number of issues and policies. But never before has the party had to fight for its very existence, torn apart by following a policy designed to resolve the very problems it has now caused.
If Theresa had refused to resign she would have been forced out because she no longer had “the confidence of parliament”, the prerequisite for being appointed Prime Minister. To have that confidence you have had to command a majority, and you can’t do that when you do not even have a party left to lead.
Lions in panther skins
It is an axiom of political history that the Conservative Party was the successor of the old Tory Party, which was centred around the court, the established church and the established social order, whilst the Liberal Party descended from the Whigs, who were largely country landowners who wanted to broaden the base of government and oppose absolute monarchy. In fact it was the other way round, and this explains much of the success the Conservatives have enjoyed over the last two centuries.
Two hundred years ago the issue of the day, as big as Brexit is now, was parliamentary reform. Since 1265 the British House of Commons had contained two classes of representative: knights of the shire and burgesses. The former represented counties, and thus the landowning interests in those counties, whilst the latter represented towns, and thus the commercial classes who were presumed to have different interests.
By the early nineteenth century this hybrid system was attracting widespread criticism, because there was no Boundary Commission to review it and recommend alterations to it. Great cities such as Birmingham and Manchester did not have their own MPs, and their inhabitants voted for the relevant county members despite the fact their interests were recognised to be different. However many insignificant towns and villages elected their own MPs, on widely differing voting qualifications.
These “borough members” did not represent commercial interests, as intended, but the views of one or two people – whoever controlled the few properties or privileges which carried with them the right to vote. Old Sarum in Wiltshire elected two MPs to represent its inhabitants despite being an uninhabited hill and when the estate of Gatton in Surrey was sold at auction in 1830, it was advertised in the catalogue as giving the new owner a seat in parliament, since that person would own the homes of all seven remaining voters.
The Whigs generally supported parliamentary reform; however, the Tories opposed it, as most of them represented the more notorious boroughs. Consequently, after the Great Reform Act was passed in 1832, sweeping away seats like Old Sarum and Gatton and establishing a standard voting qualification, the Whigs seemed unassailable, and the Tory leader who had led the opposition to reform (the Duke of Wellington, no less) a liability to any future Tory cause.
Then in 1834 King Wiliam IV removed Whig Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, and called upon Wellington to form a government. Seeing he was a problem, Wellington suggested Robert Peel, who was in the Commons rather than the Lords. Under the rules of the time, Peel was thus obliged to seek re-election in his own constituency. To emphasise that he was a different sort of Tory to Wellington, he gave his electors the Tamworth Manifesto, a statement of principles considered in hindsight the foundation of the modern Conservative Party.
When the Tories subsequently split over Free Trade, which Peel supported, the “Peelite” faction eventually left to lead an alliance with the Whigs and the Radicals, who largely represented the great cities, which became the Liberal Party. The Liberals therefore descend from the Tories.
But when the Liberals themselves split in 1885 almost all the old Whigs, and many of the old radicals formed a new party, the Liberal Unionists, which went into alliance with the Tories. This created the broad based Conservative Party which has endured ever since. Thus the Conservatives descend from the Whigs, who were redundant in themselves but represented a greater swathe of public opinion than the narrower Tories did.
There were many more Liberal splits over the subsequent years, which always resulted in some faction or other joining the Conservatives because there was room for them. After Labour, with its much more clearly defined base of support, replaced the Liberals as the other major party the Conservatives were long the only place to go if you didn’t agree with Labour. Whatever they did yesterday they could still become the acceptable alternative tomorrow, particularly for those who felt they had improved their lot, or deserved to.
Theresa chose to announce her resignation the day after the UK’s round of the European Parliament elections. She would not have known the official results of those elections, as these are not declared until all the EU states have voted. But exit polling is so sophisticated that Theresa can be pretty confident in the general picture presented by her internal machine. As that is undoubtedly a grim one she has agreed to resign at the time she has.
The flaming question mark
Several MPs have said they will stand in the Conservative Party leadership election, which will be held to replace Theresa in that position, and thus as Prime Minister in theory Boris Johnson is the heavy favourite, as ever. Fortunately however this probably means he won’t get the job – another UK political axiom, with more truth in it, is that the Next Leader of the Conservative Party never becomes Leader of the Conservative Party, as an outsider comes through to get the job when it comes down to actual votes.
But what will they be leading? The Brexit Party, Nigel Farage’s latest vehicle, has clearly won the European Parliament elections. Even if most Conservative MPs remain loyal to the party, their voters haven’t. Many party members refused to campaign for the Euros because they object to them being held at all, while those who did could offer nothing to Remain supporters, as Theresa invoked Article 50 and has tried three times to get a Brexit deal through parliament in the face of broad and successful opposition.
When the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada entered the 1993 election it was the governing party, and had won the biggest landslide in Canadian history only nine years before. It finished that election with only two seats, having been squeezed from both left and right. French Canadians who had supported it due to promises of greater autonomy deserted it when the rest of Canada refused to accept that, while the right wing Reform Party and its “prairie populism” swept it away in its Western heartlands. Eventually the PC voted to disband itself, despite having been the main opposition to the Liberals for 150 years.
The UK is not Canada, but neither was Canada until 1993. Exactly the same thing is happening in the UK now, with the Brexit Party taking away Conservative votes on one side and Change UK and the Liberal Democrats taking them on the other. The Brexit Party may not be able to achieve anything outside the Euro elections, but there is every chance the other two might, with popular candidates, particularly if they attract more defecting MPs.
The Conservative Party is now merely a habit, which people keep following by default. Brexit has forced its members to take positions which make them more at home in other parties, where those positions are more ideologically consistent with the rest of their programme. There have already been warnings from party insiders that membership is falling dramatically and numbers can only continue to fall as both wings feel the party owes them more than it is giving.
The main opposition Labour Party should be making hay with the Conservative infighting. It is trying to appeal to all sides of the Brexit argument, on the grounds that other things are more important, such as poverty reduction. But UK electors don’t seem to think so. Voting Labour is rapidly becoming as much of a habit as voting Conservative has.
Labour Brexiteers and Remainers represent existing traditions which have always conducted a long and damaging struggle for control of their party – the “hardcore workers” and the “trendy lefties”, who are only kept in the same tent by the fact that most “workers”, whatever that term now means, are fundamentally conservative in nature. Pro-Brexit Labour has always been a different animal to Anti-Brexit Labour, and Brexit may be the latest in a long line of arguments which finally convinces both sides that they no longer share the same values, or wish to.
Lucky to get nil
Theresa May rose as high as she did within the Conservative Party because she reflected its soul. She looked like a Tory, sounded like a Tory and had the personal circumstances of a Tory.
She kept saying she was a liberal at heart, but did nothing to actually demonstrate she was, as her hideous track record as Home Secretary made clear. She presented a front of brisk competence, but when she displayed considerable incompetence this was ignored because she was the right sort of person, “one of us”, in the eyes of those who might sack her.
On becoming Prime Minister she was still regarded by most electors as a businesslike woman who would get things done, even if you didn’t agree with those things. Then we saw the debacle of the 2017 election, when she threw away her party’s majority by coming across as a vacuous robot, repeating the words “strong and stable” over and over again until she and her party, which had started with a big lead, became little more than a joke.
Theresa has been walking wounded ever since. She lost interest in the job almost as soon as she had it, but felt honour bound to carry on and see through her signature policy, delivering Brexit. Both Brexiteers and Remainers on her own side objected to the deal she agreed with the EU, and further negotiation has only made this situation worse. So in a sense she had to go, in the hope a new leader can achieve a deal which can be supported, or get backing for no deal, even though neither of these things is likely.
What has been forgotten is that there was a time when these problems wouldn’t have mattered. Theresa still looks like a Tory, sounds like a Tory and has the personal circumstances and walk of a Tory. Even if she couldn’t run the country or carry the party with her, that would have been enough. She would still have been the party’s embodiment until a new leader came along, and it would have the resources to replace her with a more suitable candidate.
In her long journey to becoming a nobody; Theresa May has led her party and her country on the road to nowhere. Brexit cannot be delivered and there is nothing else on the table. There is no longer a soul to the once mighty party Theresa has served for so long. She proved to be a one issue agenda, and she failed and that will be all that she is remembered for.
Doubtless Theresa will be remembered as a victim of circumstances, but those circumstances should never have arisen in the first place. It takes a peculiar kind of warped genius to ensure that they have, but even then we can’t credibly use the terms “genius” and “Theresa May” in the same sentence.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.