‘Red Lines’ on Brexit Became a Trap for Theresa May

‘Red Lines’ on Brexit Became a Trap for Theresa May

“It was too late by the time she did it,” said Ayesha Hazarika, who was an adviser to the former Labour leader Ed Milliband. “If you’re going to compromise, it’s best to do it early on, when you have good will. Toward the end it was more like she was trying to save herself. Everyone could see that her power was ebbing away.”

It was at this late stage, as the prospect of getting a deal through dwindled, that Mrs. May finally communicated a clear position that a no-deal exit must be avoided, even at the cost of softening Brexit. This decision was the result of a set of briefings presented to her by the cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill, in which he laid out the political and economic consequences — including to the Conservative Party — of a sudden exit.

“Since then, everything has been about excluding no-deal,” Mr. Wilkins said. “She is desperate to avoid it now. For the sake of the country, she now thinks it is the wrong thing to do.”

But as Mrs. May struggled to pass her deal, opinion among Conservative activists had been quietly shifting, from seeing a no-deal exit as a negotiating tactic to seeing it as a preferred outcome, the purest expression of the 2016 mandate.

Boris Johnson, favored by many to succeed Mrs. May, declared in January that a no-deal exit “is closest to what people actually voted for.” Nigel Farage, at the helm of the surging Brexit Party, rolled out the slogan “No deal, no problem.” This, as she exits, may prove to be her lasting legacy.

“She will be judged as a prime minister who lacked courage,” said Ms. Hazarika, the former Labour adviser. “If she had taken on the Boris Johnsons, the hard-line Brexiteers within her own party, and said, ‘I’m going to put the country above my party,’ I think she would have been a hero. She could have been prime minister for a long time.”

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