“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” is a phrase from Shakespeare’s play Henry IV Part Two that might be used to describe the state of former UK prime minister Theresa May during her turbulent last days in office.
With tears in her eyes after an emotional speech, May delivered her resignation speech on 24 May, ending her short-term career as the UK’s second female prime minister.
There can hardly be any doubt that her job was crippled by various hurdles from an opposition represented by the UK Labour Party, the European Union, and even her own Conservative Party, which has showed little support for her policies over recent months.
May’s initial position on the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, the so-called Brexit, was the opposite from where she stood during her time in office as prime minister.
When home secretary, she stated repeatedly that Brexit would have negative impacts for the United Kingdom and could even jeopardise the British union, especially the place of Scotland in it.
Her point was that Scotland, which voted by a majority to stay in the European Union in the 2016 Brexit Referendum, had also voted in 2014 to stay in the United Kingdom mainly because of its membership of the EU.
If the UK leaves the EU, this could jeopardise the union. Indeed, after the Brexit vote in 2016, many Scottish political leaders, including Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, began calling for a new independence referendum, which, should it occur, might have a different result to that in 2014 that kept Scotland in the United Kingdom.
When May became prime minister in July 2016 following the resignation of fellow Conservative David Cameron, she was torn by her own personal beliefs on Brexit and her commitment to implement the voice of the people who had voted for Brexit.
At times, she acted like a saleswoman who was not convinced by the quality of the products she had to sell, and yet was trying to sell them anyway. This affected her entire behaviour during her troubled three years in office.
Some media outlets in the UK have called May the worst prime minister in Britain’s history, which is an overstatement to say the least. She may have failed in her mission to negotiate a proper deal with the European Union or secure a safe implementation of Brexit, but the odds were stacked against her in her attempts to do that.
She carries a significant part of the blame for the result, but a bigger share should be laid at the door of pro-Brexit politicians in the UK who made Brexit sound like ending a club membership or a service subscription and avoided stating the facts to the public in their campaigns.
Those politicians include Boris Johnson, a possible candidate as next prime minister.
May did not receive enough support from her own Party in the British parliament, especially during votes on the Brexit deal with the European Union.
Her opponents believed that May’s negotiated deal with the EU would cost the United Kingdom much more than the country could endure and that it was a bad deal.
They were not exactly wrong, but it was the sort of deal that any prime minister in her place would have reached, given the limits imposed on her after she had invoked Article 50 in March 2017 that gives a time limit of two years for procedures to leave the EU to be completed. That period was far from long enough.
The United Kingdom has obligations towards the EU as a member state, and these obligations have to be paid even if it leaves it. Wrestling with the European Union over these obligations would not have worked, since this would only have triggered further pressures on the United Kingdom.
That fact was ignored by many pro-Brexit politicians before and after the Brexit vote.
Moreover, European Union Commission President Jean-Claude Junker has now stated that nothing will change about the Brexit deal offered to the UK by the EU after May’s resignation. This will be a hurdle in front of any upcoming British prime minister, whether that person is pro-Brexit or pro-EU.
The opposition Labour Party led by far-left politician Jeremy Corbyn incessantly battered May throughout her short period in office. But public calls for another vote in another referendum were rejected by parliament.
May was on the defensive, but the lack of political backup from her own party members hastened her fall as prime minister. She had a role in uniting a divided nation, in which she performed abysmally, but history will be equally unkind to others besides May in the ongoing disaster.
The British nation will need resilience in the upcoming period, since negative economic news continues to pour in, especially regarding investment in the automotive sector dropping by 50 per cent and private investment in UK companies falling last year as the uncertainty continues to taint the economic atmosphere.
The ongoing economic uncertainty remains the enemy of investment, and added to the above statistics major industry giants such as British Steel are closing facilities in the UK leading to tens of thousands of British citizens joining the ranks of the unemployed.
International companies such as Honda, Nissan, Dyson, Sony and Panasonic are closing their British headquarters and moving to other countries.
Other companies are contemplating similar moves should there be a no-deal with Europe, and they include the likes of banking giant JP Morgan, Airbus and Ford Motors.
Britain once again finds itself in dire straits politically and economically after the resignation of May. This may be an opportunity for some politicians to score points and to fight to replace May, but none of them seem likely to have a vision of what exactly they will do differently to obtain a better deal for the UK from the European Union.
A no-deal exit from the European Union will likely open the door to further chaos economically, politically and socially, and it could leave Britain in dangerously uncharted waters.
Whoever replaces May will need to be more upfront with the British nation about what it can expect from a deal with the EU and what could happen next in Britain.
Britain needs a prime minister with a clear vision and a stern character, the kind of person not seen since the late Margaret Thatcher. While many have attempted to mimic her successes as prime minister, all have failed to attain that goal, with May being just the latest in that long line.
*The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The last of Theresa May