Opinion: Brexit sinks Theresa May′s UK prime ministership | Opinion | DW | 24.05.2019
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Opinion

Opinion: Brexit sinks Theresa May's UK prime ministership

The beleaguered PM has thrown in the towel: She could not deliver on Brexit as promised. But her successor, too, will find that reconciling the Brexit dream with reality will be an impossible task, Barbara Wesel writes.

Theresa May's voice broke when she delivered her resignation speech at 10 Downing Street — overwhelmed by emotions, she had to make a hasty retreat back into the prime minister's residence. This tearful outburst will be remembered as symbolic of a failed term. May had started with high hopes, but they evaporated in the course of three years. In the end, her government was focused on only one topic: Brexit. There were no other plans, no progress, no legislation. May, her Cabinet and the House of Commons were paralyzed, and they were likewise poisoned from within by the divisive force of the UK's exit from the European Union.

May must accept that she has no political legacy. Her name is less associated with success than it is with increasingly desperate attempts to push the agreement her government negotiated with the European Union through Parliament one way or another. Eventually she even tried compromise, but by then it was already too late. She had no support left within her own party, and she lost credibility in the eyes of the opposition, which no longer trusted her word.

Barbara Wesel

DW's Barbara Wesel

The prime minister was the wrong woman in the wrong place — as became evident rather quickly after she took office. During the initial stages of the Brexit negotiations, at a time when she should have remained flexible, she drew red lines and laid out tough conditions. She started by flatly rejecting a customs union and single market. In doing so, she herself was responsible for creating the stalemate over the Irish border, which eventually turned out to be the biggest impediment to getting the exit agreement through Parliament.

Instead of testing the waters to see how she might find a majority in the House of Commons for the agreement, May subjugated herself to the demands of Conservative hard-liners. This, in turn, made it impossible to achieve a compromise with the opposition, and it needlessly aggravated her negotiations in Brussels. And, finally, she was left high and dry by the very Brexiteers whose demands she had tried to cater to. She should have known better, however, because her predecessors had received similar treatment from within their own camp: The British Conservative Party is a snake pit.

Departure solves nothing

It may seem like overkill to continue to highlight May's mistakes, stubbornness, obstinance and desire to go it alone. Don't kick someone who's down. May's successor, however, will face the same problems that forced her to resign — unless there is a change in the fundamental position as to what kind of Brexit London is prepared to accept. Remaining in the customs union, for example, could solve many problems. This kind of flexibility is unlikely if May's successor is a staunch Brexiteer, and especially if he's named Boris Johnson.

The numbers in Parliament won't change. The hard-liners don't have a majority, and Johnson is unlikely to be the person who unites a divided party. What would such a proposal entail anyway? His Brexit delusions, and those of his mates, continue to remain unrealizable.

Facing a Prime Minister Johnson, EU officials would continue to demand the concessions that May agreed to. Nothing has changed. 

Johnson — or any other Brexiteer — will be unable to heal the wounds. For a long time, it was a British tradition to sugarcoat deep divisions with conventions and politeness. This art is now largely lost. All that's left is resounding insults from both sides of the Brexit divide; the altercation has become more vitriolic and acrimonious than ever. Families and friends are deeply divided and abhor each other, and all because of the absurd idea of dragging the UK out of the European Union at all costs.

Boris Johnson is not likely to be up to the task of doing what Theresa May could not. And, should he plunge the country into a hard Brexit, even worse times could be ahead. After May departs, there's no glimmer of hope to be found on the political horizon.

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