“She was dealt a bad hand.” “She took a poisoned chalice.” From a great distance, it is possible to feel sorry for British Prime Minister Theresa May. She seems so dignified. She seems to be trying so hard. The circles beneath her eyes have grown so much deeper since she became prime minister back in 2016, following the surprise result of the Brexit referendum, the resignation of her hapless predecessor, David Cameron, and an ugly leadership squabble, during which several of her male colleagues metaphorically stabbed one another in the back. Since then, she has always seemed to outsiders the sensible person in the room, the adult who knows what she is doing, the sane person in a madhouse.
Alas, she is not any of those things. She is not sensible, she does not know what she is doing, and, increasingly, she doesn’t seem to be entirely sane either. Outside of Westminster, the extent of May’s responsibility for this crisis might not be fully appreciated. But in truth, almost everything about Brexit — from the nature of the deal she negotiated to the divisions in her party and her country — is very much her fault. The latest development — European leaders have told her that the United Kingdom can have a Brexit extension until May 22, if May can get her withdrawal agreement passed in Parliament, but must crash out of all of its trading arrangements on April 12 if not — underlines this bitter truth.
The list of her mistakes is not short. She did not have to trigger Article 50, the legal mechanism for leaving the European Union, before making a plan on how to do so: That decision set a two-year clock ticking and has resulted in the cliff edge the country would have reached on the 29th of this month if an extension had not been granted. She did not have to call an unnecessary parliamentary election in 2017, one which resulted in the loss of her majority and forced her to rely on a small, radical, Protestant Northern Irish political party, as well as the extreme anti-European faction within her own party, in order to stay in power.
But her errors go even deeper. In fact, all of the events of the past two years have been shaped by a decision she made, by herself, following bad advice, at the very beginning of this process. Remember that the British did not vote for any particular form of Brexit: Thanks to Cameron’s simplistic, open-ended referendum question, they chose to “Leave” the European Union but did not express any view on what should happen next. When she took office, May could have observed that the vote was very close, that Britain’s commercial and political ties to Europe were strong, and that it would make sense for the United Kingdom to stay within the single market, the pan-European free-trade zone that Britain itself did so much to create — or at the very least within a customs union.
Instead, she chose to leave both of those institutions, a decision that immediately triggered the problem of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which was eliminated thanks to E.U. trade treaties but will, if customs barriers are put in place, need to be built back. Her decision also created potential problems for anyone who trades with Britain or works with Britain — and for Brits who trade and work in Europe. But she was not sorry: She accompanied her decision with a speech that called “a citizen of the world” nothing more than “a citizen of nowhere” and immediately alienated a large part of the country.
She went on to alienate almost everyone else. Until this week, nearly three years after the referendum, she made no effort to reach across the aisle and include opposition parties in the planning for this momentous national change. Although the E.U. has been entirely transparent about its negotiating goals from the beginning, she kept hers secret. She tried, and failed, to prevent parliamentary scrutiny of her deal. She does not respond to pleas, advice, suggestions. Columnist Matthew Parris has described her as “the Death Star of modern British politics,” a black void that sucks in people and ideas and never provides a response.
Her secrecy and incompetence have created ill will in Europe, and real anger in the House of Commons, some of whose members have belatedly tried to take control of the Brexit process. They have begged her to try a series of votes, to try to find one version of an exit plan that could pass the entire chamber. John Bercow, speaker of the House of Commons, produced a decree from 1604 in an attempt to prevent yet another vote on her deal, after two had already failed. But she seems to take none of it in. On Wednesday evening, she made a bizarre, crypto-populist appeal, over the heads of Britain’s elected representatives, to the nation: “You the public have had enough,” she declared. “You are tired of the infighting. You are tired of the political games and the procedural rows” — as if the political games and procedural rows were not all entirely her fault. “It is high time we made a decision,” she said — as if she were not the one preventing Parliament from doing exactly that.
Others have contributed to this crisis. Cameron; the Labour opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who has not lifted a finger to offer a constructive solution; an incompetent series of Tory ministers. But May is in charge, and she did not get this job by accident. I once saw a photograph of her at university, wearing a neat skirt and sensible shoes while everyone else had long hair and hippie dresses. She has been doing conservative politics ever since then, and she has wanted to be prime minister ever since then; she spent her whole life, motivated by loyalty to the Tory party, training for this job. Now she has it — and she has used it to steer her country into a humiliating crisis.
The slogan of the “Leave” campaign, back in 2016, was “Take Back Control.” But Europe has now taken back control of May’s botched Brexit. And however it ends, it won’t be a success.