The departure of Theresa May is a sad moment and I am sorry that it came to this. However, none of this really started this week. It began right back when, despite her assurances to the contrary, she chose to call a General Election in 2017. Unprepared for such a decision, the Conservative Party mounted probably the worst campaign in history and, during the weeks of campaigning, the Prime Minister was exposed to the one problem which hadn’t been tested: that she was not a campaigner. Emerging from that election having lost her majority, with her reputation in tatters, and with her strongly Eurosceptic chief of staff having left her, she made a pledge to her party, that having got them into this mess she would get them out of it.
From that moment on, the direction of the Government on Brexit shifted quite substantially. First was the appointment of her new Chief of Staff, Gavin Barwell. He was a very strong supporter of Remain, even notoriously tweeting the day after the referendum that he was “proud that my home town and the great city of which it is part rejected the politics of hate and division yesterday”. Also, one can see how the influence of the Civil Service increased dramatically, with Olly Robbins reporting directly to her, cutting out David Davis. Somewhere along the road they convinced her that there was only one way to keep the border open in Northern Ireland and thus the dreadful “backstop” was invented, the issue above all others which was destined to torpedo her deal and finally her premiership.
Most of those who campaigned for Brexit watched with alarm as, bit by bit and speech by speech, Theresa May’s position shifted, from her previous declaration that “no deal is better than a bad deal” and “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” into a messy string of weak compromises, the very same compromises she so ironically praised in her resignation speech yesterday morning.
Finally this culminated in the disastrous “deal” announced in December 2017, which to all intents and purposes remains the core of the Withdrawal Act we were about to have put in front of us until the Prime Minister decided to resign. So determined was she that hers was the only way forward that she attempted to bounce her own Cabinet at a meeting in Chequers to accept her deal, plus a facilitated customs arrangement, which even the EU then vetoed as unworkable.
Her deal was in effect a lesson in how not to carry out a negotiation, and certainly a lesson in how not to compromise. When I heard about it, I went to see her and told her that the deal wouldn’t go through. Not just because of the backstop but also because in giving the EU a pledge to pay £39 billion we had handed over our most powerful negotiating lever without agreeing a free trade deal. We had accepted the EU’s sequencing of the negotiations, which left us locked into them. Whatever happened to “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”?
I said that she should tell the EU that it was unacceptable and that the UK should leave the table and prepare to leave without a withdrawal agreement. To my surprise she answered that she could only walk away from the table once and that would be kept for the trade negotiations. I was surprised by that answer, but now I look back on what then followed I realise that the deal hadn’t been forced on her: it was what our negotiators had sought, including the backstop. She didn’t want to veto it because it was our deal.