Will Theresa May escape the European curse that toppled the last three Tory Prime Ministers?

Will Theresa May escape the European curse that toppled the last three Tory Prime Ministers?

High-profile Brexiteers must be frantically scratching their heads as they desperately try to think up new ways to criticise the Chequers plan that are eye-catching enough to generate headlines following Boris Johnson’s ‘suicide vest’ jibe. Theresa May’s Brexit blueprint has come under non-stop attack from all angles since it was agreed in July. She is far from the first Conservative Prime Minister to struggle with the European question and judging by her predecessors’ records, she has her work cut out going forward.

Margaret Thatcher was elected as Prime Minister many political lifetimes ago, but her philosophy is no less relevant today than it was in 1979. Thatcher’s fundamental libertarianism drove her fierce opposition to the EEC; her espoused aversion to its rapid growth and merciless engulfing of national sovereignty was shared by much of her party and the country. Having worked so tirelessly to disentangle the long, twisting fingers of the state from the British economy and society, Thatcher was exasperated to see the European super-government gladly and slyly filling those gaps. Her unrelenting hostility to the expansion of the European Community ultimately cost her her premiership.

John Major was the cursed soul tasked with the unholy feat of ratifying the Maastricht Treaty, essentially solidifying Britain’s membership of the newly rebranded, bigger and better European Union. Although the Maastricht Bill was eventually passed, the Government’s initial defeat in July 1993 at the hands of the Maastricht rebels irreparably injured his leadership by profoundly undermining his parliamentary authority. It was this lack of confidence in Major that formed the backdrop for the subsequent half-decade of to-ing and fro-ing over the single currency and creating the conditions for the 1997 perfect storm, the historic and still staggering landslide election defeat for the Conservatives.

Following the Tory Dark Ages of New Labour and the dreaded Coalition years, David Cameron finally emerged triumphant in 2015 with a parliamentary majority, bursting with confidence. However, having not quite managed to shore up his authority as Prime Minister as much as he would have liked amidst increasingly strong electoral performances by UKIP, Cameron and Co. thought a big, juicy EU referendum ought to do it. As has been scrutinised to death over the past two years, this was – for him personally at least – a catastrophic miscalculation. A failure to foresee support for Brexit from colleagues like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, combined with a total misjudgement of the power of the populist electoral tide, was always going to spell the end for Cameron.

Theresa May very nearly suffered the same fate as her three predecessors as Tory Prime Minister. As we know all too well, a similarly cataclysmic misjudgement of the public mood by her team led to the loss of her parliamentary majority at the 2017 election and kick-started a nationwide ‘leadership conjecture’ machine whose cogs have been inexorably turning for the fifteen months since, churning out baseless speculation and endless grand statements and dramatic proclamations about her imminent downfall.

Nevertheless, it is not too late for May. It is patently clear that Chequers cannot work in practice, but the Prime Minister herself knows that better than anybody else. Trying to please everybody – in the way that Chequers does – inevitably ends up satisfying nobody; but the plan she came up with was always going to have to work its way through the maelstrom of confusion that is negotiations with Brussels, before even arriving on British shores.

Chequers has functioned relatively well as a starting point for this final stage of negotiations with the EU, as it was always intended to. We can, however, be quite sure that the deal May drapes over her head as she re-enters the perennial hailstorm of the House of Commons will look entirely different to Chequers – that is, if she comes back with a deal at all. It is in the DNA of Conservative Prime Ministers to fall at the hands of their own party over Britain’s relationship with Europe. Each of the four Tory leaders our country has had in the last forty years has adopted a totally unique approach to government, with the previous three all failing in rather dramatic fashion.

Following the disaster of last year’s election, May has created for herself a remarkable second chance. Her only hope now is that she can fully utilise the political cunning she has demonstrated on so many occasions up to this point to take Brexit Britain where she wants it to go. Do not judge Theresa May based on Chequers. Chequers was never supposed to be a final product, and it never will be. May is a pragmatist, especially on the issue of Brexit; she was a Remainer before the referendum, adopted a hardline Brexiteer stance following her elevation to party leader and then produced the ‘soft’ Chequers plan this year.

This lack of consistency highlights May’s aptitude for the volatile world of politics. Her true colours on Europe will only begin to become visible in the coming days and weeks. At present, it is not too late for May to pick the right course and deliver the Brexit people voted for. That might not be the case in just a couple of months’ time.