On 29 March 2019. Some declines begin over a period, Theresa May’s has a single date: that was when Brexit should have happened and did not, and all on her personal decision.
Pundits puzzled over how consistently well the Conservatives were doing in the polls; after the 2016 election the party had been in convulsions over the terms of Brexit, which in normal time should have been the death of the party’s reputation, as it had been to John Major, but the party was riding at 40% and more in the polls. The Cabinet might have taken this as proof that there is no such thing as bad publicity – the chaos ensured that the Conservatives led every news broadcast and were all across social media.
There was more though: only the Conservatives were promising to leave the EU according to the decision of the referendum. The LibDems wanted to reject the vote, which was unpopular even with Remain voters who accept it as a democratic decision, Labour were all over the place even in comparison with their usual troubles, and the Nationalist were spreading hatred as usual, so only the Conservatives were in the game. All we had to do was wait for 29 March 2019, a date fixed in an Act of Parliament, or so we thought.
The Withdrawal Agreement was troublesome, and here cabinet members made their private arguments public, which was a mistake. When a group of ministers said they would find it hard to serve in the government if its policy became on of “no-deal” they got headlines but were on fairly safe ground: the government was never going to make it policy to have no deal, even if that were the reluctant result. Here though in panic Mrs May made her fatal miscalculation.
The Withdrawal Agreement could not be negotiated. Theresa May was single-mindedly set on a course of getting it signed, and so focussed on the one goal that she failed to see the charging elephant bearing down on her from the side. She went for a delay in Brexit. In that action she retrospectively lied 108 times to the electorate and blew away all the goodwill of the electorate’s trust in the Conservative Party.
This might have been survivable, had the delay been the short delay she said, but it was not. In the delay period she put the Withdrawal Agreement to the Commons again, with the timetable structured so that Brexit would come earlier if they voted it down, which accordingly they did.
Then came the crowning idiocy: a second delay. The poll ratings crashed immediately, to below 20%: even at 20% (allowing for the unusual, unwanted election) that is a loss of one half of the party’s electoral support, and in additional breach with the DUP sent her Ulster votes off. Had it not been the fear of Jeremy Corbyn, this would have caused a vote of no confidence, a general election and complete wipe-out, and potentially the Conservatives out of power for a generation or more, on a loss of trust.
Could it have been avoided? Certainly, and it would just have taken a little creative thinking, courage and common sense. These three qualities, though core to the British character, are collectively lacking in the inner cabinet.
If Mrs May had done nothing, 29 March 2019 would have come, Exit Day would have come, the United Kingdom would be out of the European Union and the polls secured. The Withdrawal Agreement could then have been signed in spite of Parliament, because a vote is only needed for a Withdrawal Agreement, not a post-withdrawal agreement.
Tunnel vision has caused political disaster and can still cause more. If you meet a cabinet minister, ask them this: Would a no deal Brexit be more economically damaging than a Marxist Corbyn government? There should be no need to ask.