Simon Usherwood is deputy director of UK in a Changing Europe, at King’s College, London. He is an associate professor in the politics department, University of Surrey.
British Prime Minister Theresa May announced she will resign as leader of the Conservative Party on June 7. This is not much of a surprise. Ever since her ill-fated decision to call an early general election in 2017, she has been marked by her party: a liability in an election and a danger on Brexit.
And it is Brexit that has defined and will continue to define our view of Ms. May. Nothing else that she has done in a long political career will ever really make as much of an impression as the manner by which she has pursued Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.
That approach involved doubling down on the narrow result of the 2016 referendum and pushing for a relatively distant future relationship with the EU, outside of its main economic activities, the single market and the customs union.
That made her look like a standard-bearer for the Conservative Party’s backbenches: a Remainer who had heard the call of the people and now was to bring Leave to life.
In so doing, she sought to build an agreement in the Brexit negotiations that was focused on her party, rather than any broader consensus: opposition parties were ignored and pilloried; businesses struggled to get a hearing; and experts of all sorts came second to the party faithful and the ideologues.
The result was a convoluted effort to balance the EU’s needs with those of a Tory party that increasingly failed to know its own mind. The outcome was a withdrawal agreement that reflected more of the former than the latter.
And now we find ourselves here, six months after the deal had been signed off by negotiators, with a British Parliament unwilling and unable to agree on whether to accept it.
This is Ms. May’s legacy.
The choices made cannot simply be unmade. First and foremost was the March 2017 decision to begin the formal process of withdrawal without a clear consensus around a plan of what to do, both in the negotiations and beyond.
Yes, there is the technical possibility of stopping the whole thing and not leaving the EU, but that does not command much support within Parliament and certainly not within the ranks of the Tories.
Thus Ms. May’s replacement – due to be elected by the party during June and early July – will end up discovering that Ms. May was not the problem. Brexit is.
The effort to weaken and remove Ms. May focused a lot on making the deal “hers” and on suggesting that she simply hadn’t tried hard enough to push for more concessions from the EU, be that on the Irish dimension or finances or anything else.
But the EU has been resolute since signing off the agreement in November that this deal is the only deal and no one is going to get to change it.
Indeed, it has been precisely because of the chaotic nature of British politics that the EU side has been so inflexible: its concern about the potential for things to change has only heightened its desire to get commitments written into law.
And remember that this agreement is only about the ending of the current relationship, of British membership of the EU. It is not about the future relationship that might come. For the EU, the liabilities that the agreement deals with have to be addressed before things can move on.
And so as a new prime minister enters 10 Downing Street this summer, they are likely to find that Theresa May wasn’t the blockage that had to be removed to get things moving again, but rather an expression of the deeper political forces that still apply.
Brexit isn’t about to get any easier.