In the final season of Game of Thrones, a once-powerful and arrogant queen stands almost alone at the top of her castle, abandoned by the multitudes who once feared and followed her, her strategies in ruins, watching with dulled horror as her enemy swoops closer, burning her city down. At the last, as she flees down a staircase, even her most trusted champion deserts her, leaving her to fight a battle of his own. Only the man who loves her is by her side at the end.
That was how Theresa May’s premiership ended this week. All her Brexit proposals ended in failure. Hard-line backbenchers were denouncing her, newspaper headlines read “desperate, deluded, doomed” and the Conservative Party’s grass roots around the country were believed to be pushing to change their party’s rules in order to get her out. Only her fiercely loyal husband still believed that the problem lay solely with the conniving and sniping of other politicians, not his wife.
It would be understandable to feel sympathy for anyone so isolated and vilified. I don’t. Mrs May has been destroyed by her own fatal decisions.
Delivering Brexit was always going to be difficult, because it had been sold on a lie — that leaving would be simple and the future prosperous. The exact nature of any Brexit had been kept deliberately vague by the leading Brexiteers.
Mrs May, as the first prime minister after the 2016 Brexit referendum, could have minimised those difficulties by exposing that lie, and by seeking a Brexit that kept Britain’s economy close to Europe’s while honouring the decision to leave.
Tragically she chose instead to pander to the her party’s right wing and its backers in the news media, promising to quit both the European Union’s single market and its customs union, and ceaselessly repeating the disastrous idea that “no deal is better than a bad deal.” Her decisions in those first months were calamitous; they framed Brexit as a sharp break from Europe and turned it from a problem to a disaster.
For a few months she basked in the short-lived political rewards. The Tory press offered calculated adoration, praising the new Iron Lady and admiring her steel, ambition, boldness and leadership. Carried away by their sycophancy, revelling in her novel popularity and buoyed by a healthy lead in opinion polls, Mrs May called an election to bolster the tiny parliamentary majority she had inherited. Instead of expanding her majority in Parliament, she lost it and was forced to beg support from a small, far-right Northern Irish party. Mrs May went from being the blank screen onto which every Tory or Brexiteer could project their hopes, to the humiliated and compromised leader of a minority administration.
From this every subsequent disaster followed. Mrs May stubbornly pursued a hard Brexit though she had neither the mandate nor the votes to back it. Even last November, when the deal she had finally negotiated with the European Union was defeated in the House of Commons by the largest margin in British history, she refused to explore the possibility of seeking consensus in Parliament. “The trouble with Theresa is that she only recognises reality when it hits her in the face,” one exasperated ex-cabinet minister told me. Unlike the Queen of Westeros, she is not a wicked woman; but her serial stubborn stupidity is unforgivable. The legacy she leaves, the curdled, purist view of Brexit she has helped to shape, is a poisonous one.
©2019 The New York TimesNews Service