Theresa May has failed. That is no longer in doubt. Nor is there any prospect of resurrection. Her credibility within the Conservative party, the House of Commons, and the United Kingdom at large is shot. The only thing propping up her Government is the fear that allowing it to collapse completely would invite Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street. That, for the time being, is something even this deranged iteration of the Conservative party is not prepared to countenance.
As a matter of party politics, May has been on some kind of unofficial probation ever since last year’s disastrous general election. In office, certainly, but only tolerated grudgingly. As far as the country is concerned – a matter of obviously secondary importance – the Prime Minister earns some sympathy simply for putting up with the evident ghastliness of her colleagues. Sympathy is not the same as enthusiasm, however, and here again the Prime Minister is tolerated but not loved. There are no Mayites any more than this ministry has a governing philosophy that extends any further than getting to the end of the day, every day.
One day at a time, however, begins to lose its appeal when that means one day closer to a no-deal Brexit the government’s own boffins – as well as those at the Bank of England and just about every other earth-dwelling organization – consider an act of gross, indeed grotesque, national self-harm. That is where we are headed, however. Tick bloody tock.
The Conservative party likes to believe itself a model of pragmatism but when it comes to Europe it is no such thing. To one degree or another, Europe has destroyed the careers of Margaret Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron and now, whether it is tonight or not, Theresa May. Perhaps the problem is less Europe than the Conservative party?
May has failed, certainly, but she has failed for some of the same reasons David Cameron failed. His approach to the EU could be summed up as ‘Look, it’s rubbish but it’s better than the alternatives.’ May’s attempt to sell her deal to parliament and the country has used the same script and so perhaps we should not be surprised that it has had a comparable reception.
And yet, in general, she has been right just as Cameron was right. Imperfection is not the same as unacceptable; sometimes the alternatives really are worse. This is one such moment but, alas, the spirit of cakeism has so thoroughly infected the Conservative party that it now prefers the bracing fires of immolation to the messy, meh-filled, tediousness of compromising with reality.
Even so, replacing May – tempting and even rational as it may be or seem – hardly resolves the problems which have led us to this present happy calamity. The underlying issues remain. Once you have sealed off other Brexits, this is the Brexit that is available. Inconveniently, the UK cannot impose its version of Brexit upon the EU 27. They have a say too, however much the most committed Brexiteers like to forget this. At present there is no sign the EU is prepared to reopen negotiations it believes were satisfactorily concluded. Perhaps that will change – money can talk, after all – but for the moment the suggestion it will is based on literally nothing more than wishful thinking. And the country might have had enough, at this point in time, of wishful thinking.
As for a replacement? Well, the choice is between those people of whom the public have never heard and those people whom they recognize and dislike intensely. There is no Brexit champion waiting in the wings. (In any case, why in the name of God, would you want this job now?) Not only that, there is no Brexit strategy waiting to be deployed as some kind of game-changing master-stroke.
There is not, on this issue if few others, very much difference between the most demented Brexiteers and Jeremy Corbyn. They each believe in the magic beans of a new, better, negotiated deal that will magically give the UK everything it needs. That the detail of these imaginary deals differ matters less, for now, than the shared belief these things can be accomplished. None of them, at any point, can answer a single, simple, question: ‘How?’
So we stagger on without, infuriatingly, getting anywhere at all. The case for May’s leadership is almost wholly negative. In that sense, there is every reason to get rid of her and replace her with someone – anyone – else. But in as much as there is no obvious plan B and no immediately attractive candidate, changing the pilot right now does not mean a change in direction. It certainly doesn’t guarantee a better ship.
In this way, even great, dramatic, moments of great political consequence are also oddly irrelevant. May is a problem but not the problem; replacing her is a solution but not the solution. You can have any kind of success you want here, you see, so long as it’s failure.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.