Janan Ganesh: May’s greatest mistake was in first few months of premiership

A long time has passed since British were enthused by anyone offering to govern them but Brexit has raised stakes

British prime minister Theresa May waits for the results to be declared at the count centre in Maidenhead. Photograph: Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images

British prime minister Theresa May waits for the results to be declared at the count centre in Maidenhead. Photograph: Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images

 

No precedent does justice to the speed and depth of Theresa May’s political collapse. When the Conservative prime minister of Britain volunteered for a general election seven weeks ago, she had a poll lead that was larger than the Labour opposition’s entire share of the vote. The question was whether her win would be comfortable or majestic.

What has happened since is a complex story that takes in her own limitations as a leader, the surprise vigour of Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, the awakening of young voters who saw EU exit as a menace to their futures, a public weariness of tight fiscal policy and a new national appetite for upheaval - premiered at the Europe referendum last June - that scotches all stereotypes of the British. The stablest of democracies has become the western world’s box of surprises.

It is also troublingly exposed. Ten days before the scheduled start of EU exit talks, Britain has no secure government and no negotiating position that commands a consensus in parliament, much less the electorate. To proceed in these circumstances would be bizarre but May, among her various misjudgments, filed Article 50 before the election. The two-year deadline to conclude the talks nears all the time.

There is a way out of this fix but it involves a general election. Yes, another one. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives seem able to conjure a viable government out of the new House of Commons. Even if the Tories manage it, they will probably do so under a different leader, who would then need a popular mandate. A late-summer showdown between a new Tory prime minister (Boris Johnson, say, though the foreign secretary would face competition) and a strengthened Corbyn could be held to settle matters.

The trouble is that parliament would have to vote for a general election, and Labour has no reason to risk the gains it has just made. In the event of this impasse, Britain would be stuck in purgatory, with a weak minority government living hand to mouth as the clock runs down on the most important diplomatic process in the nation’s postwar history.

Deadlock is Britain’s new normal. In 2010, there was a hung parliament. In 2015, a narrow Conservative majority. Now, another hung parliament. Even in 2005, Tony Blair won a big majority on a small share of the vote. A long time has passed since the British were enthused by anyone offering to govern them. The difference now is the stakes.

Amid the chaos, markets, which punished sterling on news of the exit poll, can console themselves that two shocks have become less probable. The first is the break-up of the UK. Ruth Davidson led the Scottish Tories to gains against the Nationalists. A referendum on secession will be shelved for a while.

The election throws up an even larger prize: a more moderate version of EU exit than the one envisaged by May. Before pro-Europeans become delirious, Friday’s result cannot be interpreted as an equal and opposite reaction to the Europe referendum. The two main party manifestos did not differ much on the subject. But the prime minister called this election to secure a mandate for her hard take on exit and failed to obtain it. Most of her plausible successors (Philip Hammond, the chancellor of the exchequer, and Amber Rudd, the home secretary, might take on Johnson) are pragmatic by temperament.

They will also see where the Tories lost seats: the cities, the university towns. The bits of Britain that are at ease with the outside world. Yes, May botched her policy on social care and picked a needless fight over the marginalia of fox-hunting, but her greatest mistake took place in the first few months of her premiership.

She chose to make the most extreme possible interpretation of a close referendum result. She chose to renounce membership of the European single market, to seek exit from the customs union and, later, to entertain the idea of departing the EU with no formal deal at all. These were choices. None of it was ordained. She then couched these choices in a rhetoric that left urban, internationalist voters wondering if they had a place in her Britain.

Those voters cannot count on a soft exit. They cannot count on the EU to even offer such a thing. But they may soon be able to count on a prime minister who is willing to try.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017

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