As Theresa May went to Brussels Thursday for the opening of the two-day European Council summit, a European Union official warned that she was in for a “humiliating” experience. If so, May will feel at home on foreign soil.
The last two weeks have been nothing but humiliation for May. First, after calling a general election in order to bolster her authority, she lost her narrow parliamentary majority. Then, instead of coasting back into Downing Street and neutralizing her rivals for the Conservative leadership, she found herself unable to assemble a coalition before the Queen’s Speech, the ancient ritual in which the monarch comes to the House of Commons, hears some light badinage from her loyal subjects, and then reads a list describing the incoming government’s legislative plans.
May once warned the Conservatives that the public disliked them as the “nasty party.” She campaigned for re-election on a centrist manifesto, too. But now she wants to govern with the support of Northern Ireland’s 10-member Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The DUP are a faction of Protestant sectarians and social conservatives whose policies are wholly at odds with recent Conservative policy.
In 2014, David Cameron’s government legalized same-sex marriage, though not in Northern Ireland because of DUP opposition. Jim Wells, a DUP MP and ex-health minister, has said, apparently without irony, that “the gay lobby is insatiable, they don’t know when enough is enough.” Abortion laws are also much stricter in Northern Ireland—closer to those of the Irish Republic than to the rest of the U.K. The DUP opposes the right to abortion. Jim Wells wishes to alter the law in order to deny legal abortions for victims of rape.
The DUP are used to negotiating with Sinn Fein, their mortal enemies in the Northern Irish Assembly, and with British governments, Labour or Conservative, whom they accurately suspect of being willing to betray the Ulster Protestants if it secures peace, or at least quiet, in Northern Ireland. For once, the Ulster Unionists are the stronger party in the negotiations. Apart from raising their price of their votes in the London parliament, they have sought to diminish May before the next bout of Northern Irish negotiations.
True to nasty form, the DUP has refused to grant May a minimal “condition and supply” deal, in which the DUP would support her from outside the government. It was rumored that the DUP’s negotiators refused to answer calls from May’s negotiators for 36hours, and then demanded that the Treasury allocate an extra £2 billion to Northern Ireland. As this would amount to about £1,100 per resident, May could pay it like other victims of blackmail, in a small brown envelope.
The DUP forced May to delay the Queen’s Speech by three days. This was intended to humiliate her, and not just before Her Majesty, who had set aside the date in her diary and is a bit of a stickler. The DUP’s move cut to the core of May’s weakness. In the arcana of British procedure, the winner of a general election—or in this case, the smallest loser—cannot form a government without the monarch’s permission.
When May went to Buckingham Palace on the morning after the election, she informed the Queen that she thought the DUP could be brought into a governing arrangement. On Thursday, the Queen honored her part of the constitutional bargain by putting on a heavy crown and spending one of the hottest June days in British history in the House of Commons. But Theresa May did not produce a working coalition in time.
The Queen’s Speech amounted to a retreat from the election manifesto, and a doubling down on the policy that got May the job in the first place, Brexit. A. Sky educational reform, plans for the revival of grammar schools, has been abandoned. Grammar school are state-funded but selective. They had a proven record as accelerators of social mobility. A Labour government abolished most of them in the late 1960s, on the pretext that it was preferable that all pupils should fail equally. Social mobility, never a British speciality, has declined accordingly.
By abandoning grammar schools, May is handicapping talented children in the social obstacle course of British life. She is also telling their parents that the Conservatives are still the nasty party, a bunch of self-serving toffs.
What remained in the Queen’s Speech was a large dollop of Brexit, served cold. For nearly a year, May has promised to honor the result of the June 2016 Brexit referendum. “Brexit means Brexit,” she said in January; hardly a Churchillian phrase, but likely to be the only enduring statement of her tenure. The Queen’s Speech restated the key aspects of a “hard Brexit,” leaving the European customs union, and suspending the free entry of EU citizens into Britain—or, in layman’s parlance, keeping the foreigners out.
Meanwhile, Philip Hammond, May’s chancellor, hinted that many Conservatives would settle for “transitional arrangements” with the EU, in which the parties would agree to separation, but continue their cohabitation for the sake of the children. “We are leaving the European Union,” Hammond told BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, “but when you buy a house, you don’t necessarily move all your furniture in on the first day you buy it.”
May went to Brussels bearing a concession. There are 3.2 million EU citizens living in Britain, and 1.2 million British citizens living in the EU. Brexit has thrown their residency into doubt. The anti-Brexit media have raised the specter of deportations. But the immigration police will not, it seems, be dragging the French waiters out of London’s cafés and the Polish plumbers out from beneath the nation’s blocked sinks. In Brussels, May has said that they shall retain their rights of residency in Britain.
Was this a gesture of goodwill, or desperation? The same can be said for the overstuffed Cabinet that awaits May on her return to London. She already had to deal with Boris Johnson, who combines the elusive dynamism of the Scarlet Pimpernel with the king-in-waiting entitlement of a Bourbon Dauphin. After the election, May incorporated into the Cabinet one of the hardest Brexiteers, Michael Gove.
Gove and Johnson led the pro-Brexit Conservative campaign in last year’s referendum. They fell out after David Cameron’s resignation. Johnson was expected to slip into the top job with Gove’s support, but Gove then launched his own bid. This move discredited them both, and opened the path for Theresa May, who was then believed to have a safe pair of hands, but has subsequently turned out to be a butterfingers. The major Conservatives are huddling together because they fear that the party could do even worse in a second general election. They are also converging on May’s job.
Johnson announced this week that there would be no election before the scheduled completion of Brexit talks in March 2019. Few expect a deal to be struck by then. The absence of a deal will afford Johnson, Gove, or Hammond the chance to launch leadership bids. And so, for that matter, will the achievement of a deal, for that is the sole purpose of Theresa May’s premiership.
In the meantime, Britain has no workable government until May meets the DUP’s price. Her only coalition alternative, an alliance with the Liberal Democrats, is no alternative at all, for the Liberal Democrats are the voice of pro-EU, anti-Brexit England. Coalitions are rare in British politics—the Conservative-Liberal Democrat alliance of 2010 to 2015 was the first peacetime coalition since 1855—and they are inherently unstable.
May can defer the final humiliation of being publicly overthrown by her Cabinet, but she cannot escape it. Survival will come at the cost of smaller humiliations—policies reversed and abandoned, concessions offered and not reciprocated. Each of them will bring the end closer.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard