May ends her premiership as she started it: With the greatest lie of all

Theresa May announced her resignation as prime minister in the same way she began her term: with the expression of political values she did precisely nothing to promote.

It was a bookend speech, almost identical in its vision to the one she made when she first entered Downing Street. She spoke about the need to find "compromise" on Brexit. She said the referendum was a call for "profound change in our country". She outlined her supposed accomplishments in national finance, helping first-time buyers and the environment. She emphasised a "decent, moderate and patriotic Conservative government, on the common ground of British politics". And she called for a country that could "stand together".

Not a single word of it was true. The two bookend speeches bore no resemblance at all to the content of her premiership.

The list of accomplishments was particularly desperate. In reality, as everyone knows - as she knows best of all - Brexit has wiped everything else off the domestic agenda. There is no time or capacity to do anything about inequality, or industry, or the environment, because it eats up all of the attention of the government and civil service.

The Conservative government did not stand in the "common ground" of British politics. From the moment of her 2016 conference speech, when it was clear that ending free movement overrode all other political considerations, she made it a formal policy to sabotage Britain's trading status and economic and legal structure in order to reduce immigration.

It was as simple as that. Ending free movement meant leaving the single market. Leaving the single market meant an end to Britain's position as beachhead for global companies entering Europe, for our ability to sell services across the continent, and for frictionless trade. But all those considerations were considered secondary to immigration.

This moment has now been absorbed into British political group-think as somehow necessary. It was nothing of the kind. There was never a democratic mandate for it on the basis of the referendum result. Somewhere between 20% to 40% of Leave voters were either relaxed about immigration or did not prioritise it above the economy. Even Boris Johnson, who won the campaign for Leave, wrote a piece immediately afterwards holding open the possibility of keeping free movement.

It was a political choice. It took the fundamental demand of Ukip and absorbed it into No.10. It was the Faragisation of Great Britain. And she was too short-sighted to see that this would not neutralise his appeal. He would always find an imaginary betrayal to hound her with, as he is now, even when the disasters we are experiencing are a result of his own arguments.

This was not the common ground. It was the hard right. Its fundamental proposition was that reducing the number of foreigners in Britain was worth national sabotage. She embraced it eagerly, right to the end. Even in the bitter final days of her premiership, it was all she really seemed to care about. When she published her deal, ending free movement was her top line. Even when she outlined her updated ten-point plan this week, it was highlighted.

And then there is the utter hypocrisy of her appeal for compromise. Of course, it is easy to see why she says this. Labour won't back her and many Leave MPs won't either, so it is natural to conclude that she is offering a pragmatic position in the centre which ideologues are unable to accept. That is an intuitive thought, but it is entirely false.

There was never a compromise. The two obvious compromise positions - single market and customs union - were dismissed early on as a betrayal of Brexit. May spent years encouraging this language without seeing that it would eventually be turned on her.

These two options would have allowed a prime minister to deliver Brexit while maintaining British quality of life and frictionless trade, specifically in Ireland. She did not take them.

People now say it would have been impossible. That is tragically false. At the start of her premiership, she had sky-high public support and strong backing in the party. That was the moment to make the brave case. It would have offered her a clear and deliverable Brexit policy. Instead, she ruled them out, and made it impossible to deliver the project without threatening the economy and the Union. In reality, it was this course of action which was impossible. And it was this which broke her in the end.

Some believe that her commitment to keeping the border open in Ireland was a sign of compromise. It is a statement that tells you a great deal about how badly our standards have dissolved. It is simply a commitment to the Union. If that border closes up, if state infrastructure appears there - either in the form of physical surveillance equipment and buildings, or border agents - it goes against the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and threatens a return to the Troubles. It is, as May belatedly recognised, the beginning of the end of the UK.

To call a commitment to the Union compromise, especially when it comes from the leader of a party with the word Unionist literally in its name, is quite astonishingly insane, but that is the level of understanding we now live in.

This was not to do with compromise. It was to do with reality.

These are the trade-offs Brexit entails. If you want full control of your trading status, you will not be in a customs union. If you are not in a customs union, you will not be able to have frictionless trade with your neighbours. If you want full regulatory control of your country, and an end to free movement, you will not be in the single market. If you are not in the single market, you will hurt British industry and quality of life.

Brexit was based on the idea that downsides do not exist, that trade-offs are a conspiracy, and that simple answers can be given to complex problems. Every single one of these propositions is false. The moment it turned from poetry to prose, from rhetoric to reality, from campaign slogans to legal documents, the lie was revealed.

That is what the Irish issue was. It was not a compromise at all. It was the translation of Leave campaign gibberish into legal and practical fact. And the moment it was written down, it destroyed her.

In truth, she never showed any interest in compromise. The 48% of the country who voted Remain were systematically ignored, belittled and slandered throughout her time in office. They were branded elitists, despite the fact the Leave result hinged on wealthy voters. They were branded 'the establishment', despite being completely frozen out of decision-making. They were branded 'citizens of nowhere', despite being motivated by outrage at what was being done to their country. They were branded 'Brexit-deniers', despite highlighting the very problems which would make the project undeliverable.

This came from Leave politicians and journalists in general, but at the top, giving it form and validation, was the prime minister. She never reached out. She spoke of crazed conspiracy theories to undermine Brexit by the opposition, or judges, or the House of Lords, or EU leaders. She threw in her lot with the most crazed and hysterical Brexiters in her party. And in the end they devoured her anyway, because it was easier to do that than face the inadequacy of their own position.

She was a deceptive prime minister throughout. She lied incessantly, about every stage and aspect of the project. But the biggest lies came at the beginning and the end of her premiership, when she claimed to fight for a better country, to seek the centre ground and look for compromise. She did none of these things. And it is intolerable that she should pretend she did.

On the face of it, she is the worst prime minister of our lifetime. She has no achievements, she conducted herself without grace or principle, and she governed the country as it was humiliated on the world stage.

In actual fact, that's not quite right. David Cameron, her predecessor, takes the top spot. He made his errors for entirely self-serving reasons, in a benign political environment. He created Brexit by calling a referendum, in order to minimise losses in a local election no-one even remembers anymore. The demands upon him were miniscule and his failure enormous.

May has the advantage of much greater demands. Anyone would have struggled. They were punishing circumstances and she handled it particularly badly. So she is not the worst prime minister. She is the second worst. That's the best thing you can say about her.

Ian Dunt is editor of and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

This prime minister was destroyed by Brexit. And the next one will be too.

Her options narrowed to zero. One by one, every course of action fell away until Theresa May looked like the most solitary and pointless figure on earth, with no allies, no course of action, and no purpose to doing anything in the first place.

Why even stay prime minister? The withdrawal bill was not going to get through, that much was obvious. Her initial dreams of insisting her administration would be about more than Brexit were long forgotten. She would never even be able to claim that she had at least delivered it. There was simply no reason to carry on.

She'd lost everything: Her Cabinet, her parliamentary party, her grassroots. Last night, Andrea Leadsom resigned - the 36th minister in a three year administration. It had a curious kind of symmetry to it: the last corpse May trod over to get into Downing Street was the final one out when her own time came to an end.

It is now clear that May will soon be gone, maybe tomorrow, maybe next week. She'll have a chance to resign. If she doesn't, the 1922 committee will probably move against her.

Brexit broke this prime minister, just like it broke the last one. But it won't end there. It'll break the next one too. And it'll keep on breaking them, until we admit what it is.

It is a beast. That's the honest truth of it. You can ignore it. You can write pieces about how we should all pretend the beast is not in the room and come back together as a country. You can urge people to look at how the beast has attractive ears, if you look at them in the right light, and try not to notice the claws or the great big slavering canines. You can stubbornly insist that people voted for the beast and refuse to pay attention to how it is ominously peering down at you. It doesn't matter. The beast remains a beast and eventually it'll eat you alive.

The truth about Brexit - the plain and simple truth of it, which no-one can make go away - is that it can only be done to a long timetable and with a lot of pain. It is fiendishly complicated. It requires the full capacity of the British political system for about five to seven years. The sacrifices it demands would probably never be accepted by parliament. And if you managed to get over all those obstacles, your only accomplishment would be to make the country poorer and weaker than it was before.

A true Brexiter, someone who was really committed to doing this, would not be lying and misleading, like May, or out on the street promoting their own pure ideological certainty, like Nigel Farage. They would be honest about the timeframe and the trade offs.

If the border is to remain open in Ireland as it is now, we need to accept the backstop and then a very close regulatory relationship. If you want free movement to end, you are cutting off services access to the continent, which is extremely harmful for an economy like the UK's. If you give up your role in Europe, you lose the ability to shape global regulations and will eventually have to get in line with rules you had no hand in forming. These are simple facts and no amount of gibberish about 'max-fac' or 'hybrid solutions' or 'alternative arrangements' has made them go away.

Maybe that's all worth it. But if so it needs someone who is prepared to say it - to level with voters about what is happening. Over the last three years we have seen a masterclass in the consequences of not doing so. Crazed secrecy, logical contortions, transparent parliamentary tricks, and the use of deception as a primary function of the operation of government.

The next Tory leader will find themselves in precisely this place, but much sooner. During the campaign, they will probably have to commit to renegotiations, which will not happen, and then no-deal. At that point, there are three potential outcomes.

The first, and most likely, is that they will decide not to do it. They will get the same top-level briefings May received on the short-term economic shock and the long term economic damage, on the security implications, on the likelihood of the eventual break-up of the UK. And there is a good chance, if they are rational, that at that point they will balk, just as she did.

If they balk, they will have to accept the existing divorce deal, with the backstop. Then we'll be back where we are now. The inane cries of betrayal and frustrated destiny will destroy them, as they did her.

The second is that they do not balk, but that parliament stops them. There are problems here. Without the European Union Withdrawal Act, there is no obvious way to take control of the parliamentary agenda again. But it is highly likely that John Bercow will provide one to stop a decision of this severity being inflicted on the country without parliamentary approval, probably through making neutral motions amendable. And then we'll be flung back into the same constitutional impasse we were in this winter. And all the inane cries of Remainer parliaments and a conspiracy in the establishment will return.

The third is that they succeed and execute no-deal. Then there will be short term chaos - massive traffic jams at the border, essential equipment and medical substances not getting in, an aggressive decline in sterling - followed by long-term stagnation and national decline. Suddenly all the people cheering on a no-deal prime minister will vanish. The one-third of the public who back it will forget they ever did so the moment they find the supermarket shelves empty. People only support extreme political ideas if they are confident they will not experience their consequences. Once they are actually inconvenienced, they will look for someone to blame. No-deal will destroy whoever is in charge at the time.

That's the outlook. Every outcome leads to doom. Brexit is a beast. It will trundle over political careers like they were ants beneath its talons.

There are only two options for the next Tory leader: Either cancel Brexit, which they will not do, or be honest with people about what it entails, which they will not do either. So the same thing will happen again, to someone else, in a slightly different way. And it'll keep on happening, until there is someone brave enough to say the thing that is so glaringly obvious: This is all a terrible mistake.

Ian Dunt is editor of and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Week in Review: A complete and utter waste of seven weeks

The Labour-Tory Brexit talks finally fell apart on Friday morning. "I am writing to let you know that I believe the talks between us have now gone as far as they can," Jeremy Corbyn told the prime minister. "We have been unable to bridge important policy gaps between us."

Theresa May announced the talks on April 2nd. In total, they have eaten up seven weeks. And what was done in those seven weeks? Absolutely nothing at all. It's been like watching a vacuum fall into a black hole.

At first there was no news. Then it emerged that she had offered a temporary customs union that lasted until the end of the period already agreed for transition. In other words, she had offered nothing.

Today we learned that they had planned to hold a series of votes on customs union options. These included a "customs arrangement" where the UK could "determine its own external trade policy", a customs union "covering both goods and services" until "alternate arrangements" could be found for the border, a "customs union covering goods" until the next election, and a "comprehensive customs union covering both goods and services".

This is the most unspeakable gibberish. What can one possibly make of it? It resembles the kind of thing someone might scrawl on an asylum wall with the blood from their fingertips, rather than the policy options of mainstream political parties. It's a kind of logical crime scene.

The best theory is that this mess is the result of two Brexit traditions colliding: ignorance and cynicism. Some people involved in the talks clearly have no idea what they are talking about. Others do and are using deceptive or mercurial political language to try to hide what these options entail.

What you end up with are sentences that simply have no meaning. What is the difference between a "customs arrangement" and a customs union? The description given for the former - "no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions" and "no checks on rules of origin" - is indistinguishable from the latter.

What does it mean for the UK to  "determine its own external trade policy", as many of the options demand? Under a customs union, we would be bound to sign trade deals with countries the EU has signed them with, but we could set our own tariffs for direct trade, as well as having control over things like services. That suggests we would determine our own policy.

But we would have to sign those deals, and goods could still enter the UK freely under zero tariffs via the EU from those third countries, massively undermining our negotiating posture. So perhaps we wouldn't. Just saying "determine its own external trade policy" means precisely nothing without a description of what that entails.

What, in the name of all that's holy, is a customs union for services? Customs unions are about goods. What are they actually talking about in this imaginary world they have created?

Could this be sector-specific pillars you can place on top of a customs union creating the regulatory infrastructure for some sort of single market relationship which they dare not say out loud? Maybe. You could imagine someone like Keir Starmer trying to frame it this way, to make it as innocuous as possible, and Corbyn agreeing to it, on the basis that he has no idea what anyone's talking about. Who knows. It could be mad babbling nonsense, or slippery Kremlinology-demanding concept synthesis, or both. Or neither. Maybe they just make this stuff up as they go along while howling at the moon.

That was all they had to show for the seven weeks. And then the talks collapsed, as we all knew they would, even in that silly period a couple of weeks back when people suggested otherwise. Seven weeks gone.

And the best part is, this is just an opening salvo of wastefulness. It's a mere amuse-bouche of inadequacy. Next comes the Tory leadership race, to show us what true time-wasting really is. This is how the big boys do it when there's no-one to get in the way. They will show you preening party political self-interest and national irresponsibility at a level you can barely conceive.

First we wait a month for May to try and fail to get her deal through, this time by legislation. Then, in all likelihood, she will have some other strategy to play for time. Eventually, probably, they'll unseat her. And then we'll have a contest.

How long will this take? Probably quite a long time, given there seem to be half a dozen new candidates every day. Yesterday, James Cleverly, who has managed to show loyalty to May over recent months while still exhibiting some degree of wit, threw his hat in the ring. So did Kit Malthouse, the dimwit whose dreamy imaginings of 'alternative arrangements' on the border served as a kind of tragicomic subplot to the votes on the deal. Even 1922 committee chair Graham Brady, who has all the charisma of a broom-cupboard in a small village hall, is toying with the idea.

They understand. There is no-one so drab and useless they are below consideration for the Tory party leadership. The benchmark of competence has burrowed into the earth and is slowly melting into its boiling core.

We have five candidates declared: Boris Johnson, Rory Stewart, Esther McVey, Andrea Leadsom and Dominic Raab. We've over a dozen others who have declared interest, including Michael Gove, Sajid Javid, Amber Rudd and others. And we've countless others below that who are mulling it over. Just on numbers it is hard to believe this will be a short contest. The candidates with less name recognition will be pushing for it to be longer so that they have more time to establish themselves.

That seems to preclude any decision being made before the summer recess. So they would probably be made leader just before the party's conference in early October. And then at the end of the month Article 50 finishes and we'll need to ask for another extension.

That is the entire extension completely wasted. All of it gone. And for what? For nothing. For cross-party talks that were doomed from the beginning and in which people proposed ideas with no discernible meaning. For a leadership contest in which MPs will compete to look tough on Brexit while vandalising our own national position.

And then at the end, nothing will have changed. The parliamentary arithmetic will be the same. The deal on offer from the EU will be the same. The deadline will be the same. We'll be exactly where we were before. This will all have been for nothing. When scientific data shows an increase in alcohol and drug consumption during this period, we'll all know who to blame.

Ian Dunt is editor of and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Latest entries