Theresa May, the Paradoxical Prime Minister
Theresa May has resigned. Expecting terrible results for the Conservative Party in the European Parliament elections (expectations that have not only been met, but surpassed), having greatly upset her backbenchers by negotiating (unsuccessfully) with Labour to get the Withdrawal Agreement approved by Parliament, and then when that failed attempting to bring it forward as the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, the Prime Minister known for her obstinacy has had no choice but to stand down. Thus ends another chapter of the Brexit saga.
Theresa May, the Unifier?
Of particular interest in her resignation speech, and of relevance to the underlying aims of Communicating Europe, was what was said, and how she framed her actions. For a Prime Minister that ostensibly modelled herself on ‘the Iron Lady’, and demonstrated a considerable unwillingness to compromise, her resignation speech indicated that the failings of her government to achieve a successful Brexit (whatever that may mean), were largely the results of the unwillingness of others to compromise.
‘It is, and will always remain, a matter of deep regret to me that I have not been able to deliver Brexit. It will be for my successor to seek a way forward that honours the result of the referendum. To succeed, he or she will have to find consensus in Parliament where I have not. Such a consensus can only be reached if those on all sides of the debate are willing to compromise.’
In stating this, May gives the impression that she has perceived herself (or at least desires to communicate herself) as a healer and a unifier. She has sought to build consensus through her actions, but the inability of ‘the other side’ to compromise made this impossible. This is a somewhat interesting position to communicate, given accusations by both other political parties in the House of Commons, and indeed, the Scottish government, that they were largely frozen out of negotiations and not consulted on any of the proposals brought by the Westminster government to Brussels.
Theresa May, the compromiser?
Even more paradoxical, then, that her resignation speech stated in its penultimate paragraph:
‘Because this country is a union. Not just a family of four nations. But a union of people – all of us. Whatever our background, the colour of our skin, or who we love. We stand together. And together we have a great future.’
Such a statement is at odds with the previous public statements by the Prime Minister. While claiming at the end of her premiership that she has sought to compromise and unify, her previous positions have communicated the opposite; on compromise from her infamous mantra of ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, repeated insistence on excluding a Customs Union and non-negotiable position on ending the free movement of people, which appears on the first page of the Political Declaration at paragraph 4; on unification, making somewhat inflammatory statements on ‘citizens of the world being citizens of nowhere’ and referring to EU citizens in the UK as ‘queue jumpers’.
The end of May
It remains to be seen whether history will be kind to Theresa May. Will she be viewed sympathetically, as a politician who sought time and time again to force through a deal in an impossible situation? Or will she instead be seen as a failure of her own making, her own inability to compromise on her so-called red lines dooming negotiations with the EU before they began? Ultimately, this may be dependent on which speeches come to dominate the narrative of her premiership – Prime Minister May, the ‘bloody difficult woman’, uncompromising in pursuing what she believed to be right, or Prime Minister May, the negotiator and arbiter, ultimately betrayed by the uncompromising nature of the House of Commons, and ultimately, her own party. Another more pressing question is, who will replace her, and what message will they bring?
Benjamin Farrand, on behalf of Communicating Europe.