Andrew Vine: Theresa May’s Brexit purgatory is a fate of her own making

Theresa May is looking increasingly isolated over Brexit.
Theresa May is looking increasingly isolated over Brexit.
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IT’S perfectly possible that Theresa May will be able to attend church on Christmas Day, and then enjoy her lunch, without being burdened by the cares that go with being Prime Minister.

As a committed Christian, she will be familiar with the concept of purgatory, and might reflect that it is a state in which both her own premiership and the entire country existed over Brexit.

But even if she survives as Prime Minister for another month – and it is the biggest of ifs – there is likely to be no end in sight to Britain’s agonies over Brexit, no more clarity over where this whole bungled, botched, despairing process will end.

The one overwhelmingly clear thing about the future to emerge from yesterday’s turmoil at Westminster is that the Brexit deal on which Mrs May staked everything is dead. It has absolutely no chance of winning Commons support.

And her defiance when she appeared at Downing Street in the evening to insist hers is the only possible plan only made matters worse. How can she possibly hope to push it through a Commons which greeted her with such hostility and derision, especially from her own side? Or convince the EU that a deal on this basis is achievable?

She may not get the chance to do either, if the band of Brexiteers led by Jacob Rees-Mogg gets its way and triggers a vote of no confidence in her. The beleaguered figure who appeared at the dispatch box yesterday for the most excoriating session any Prime Minister has faced in recent memory might have been a different person from the calm, assured, competent politician who entered Downing Street two summers ago.

To a country unsure of how Brexit would work, Theresa May looked the ideal person to ensure everything turned out well. She wasn’t an exciting politician, but her seeming dependability, resolve and attention to detail appeared to be exactly right for the circumstances.

That impression held for a while, even led many to hope that her vision of a gloriously successful post-Brexit Britain set out in a speech at the Mansion House might be achievable. She was hailed “The Queen of Brexit” by one of the backbenchers who might now vote her out of office.

But then she started talking nonsense. “Brexit means Brexit” was the stock answer to every legitimate question about exactly how it would all work. Between that and her appalling, nervy performance in a General Election that she had promised not to call – destroying her own majority in the process – Mrs May’s air of competence evaporated.

Since then, her prevarication and attempts to appease Tory Brexiteers have been a toxic combination that resulted in yesterday’s upheavals.

There has long been an air of doom about this Prime Minister, a sense that she was just hanging on, not in control of events but buffeted by them. The more she protested that she was fully in command and set on a clear and decisive course, the less credible she sounded.

It wasn’t all her fault, but failing to set a clear policy at the very beginning made matters worse.

However Brexit was to be delivered, there was no outcome that was ever going to heal divisions both within politics and in the country as a whole.

The closeness of the vote to leave the EU always meant there would be rancour, and Mrs May has never seemed to fully appreciate that.

A brutal break with the EU without agreement on future trading links? That horrified business leaders. A negotiated exit that maintained a close relationship? That horrified large parts of her own party.

All the silly talk of telling the EU where to get off, and then expecting it to trade freely with a liberated Britain was never realistic, either legally or politically.

Braying about being a sovereign nation again was so much hot air. We were never anything but a sovereign nation. EU membership had no bearing on that.

Mrs May should have damped all that down in her first weeks in office.

She failed to capitalise on the general goodwill she enjoyed from the country by setting out a realistic vision of what Brexit would involve in order to take the heat out of the debate. The good sense and careful reasoning she had seemed to embody were absent.

So it all became about avoiding confrontations within her own party, kicking the issue down the road in the hope that something would turn up instead of mastering events, until time became so short that Mrs May was forced to cobble together a plan that satisfied no one.

Yesterday was the outcome.

Her days in office may be numbered, and if they are, she will be remembered for being the architect of her own downfall, a fitting epitaph for a politician who at first seemed ideal for the challenge the country faced, but proved ill-equipped to meet it.