Dozens of works of fiction centring around Brexit were written within the last three years.
An interesting one among them is ‘Brexit XXL: A political novel’ by Vincent Pluchet, set in London in the year 2022. In this fictional depiction, after endless negotiations with Brussels, around 2018, the Conservative Prime Minister Tracy Meller had chosen the most uncompromising of all possible exits, a ‘Brexit XXL’.
And, as a follow up in 2022, she is facing an unprecedented crisis when the economy, financial markets and job market all turned into disastrous conditions. In the meantime, Britain’s control over Scotland was loosened, and the opposition Labour Party gained huge popularity. There is no doubt that Tracy Meller in Vincent Pluchet’s novel is none other than Theresa May.
While many speculations portrayed in the novel are just looming realities, Theresa May’s negotiation with Brussels and the process of taking the British parliament into confidence for the Brexit deal has not ended even now. Certainly, Tracy Meller is portrayed to be more efficient and successful than Theresa May in this context. May’s struggle continues – a dual struggle for Brexit negotiations and her own survival.
I even wonder whether May was a British prime minister in the true sense of the term, or just a special officer-incharge of executing Brexit. It’s a pity that no one, not even May herself, is going to judge her legacy by the agenda she had announced standing on the steps of Downing Street in July 2016, when she wanted to “fight against burning injustices”. Unfortunately, her legacy is confined to Britain’s divorce deal with Europe. During the last few months, May faced a hard time in parliament where her proposed Brexit deals had been defeated repeatedly, and Jeremy Corbyn must be up to grab the opportune moment to form a Labour government.
Reportedly, senior Conservative MPs are now planning for an ouster of May as prime minister ‘within a matter of days’. Although May is safe from such a challenge until next December under current rules as she had survived a previous vote last December, the leaderships of the 1922 Committee are reportedly working on a change in party leadership rules to allow a vote of confidence in her leadership before the summer recess.
Interestingly, in a bid to win support of Conservative MPs during that critical vote of no-confidence, May had told them that she wouldn’t lead the Conservatives in the 2022 election. But that might not be too serious as some May loyalists later played it down saying that she had only accepted it would make colleagues ‘uncomfortable’ if she fought the 2022 election.
Subsequently May even expressed her willingness to leave office in an ‘orderly handover’ whenever an EU withdrawal deal is done. Is May the worst British prime minister in living memory? Certainly, May’s handling of Brexit negotiations was catastrophic. She reached the highest office mostly due to the Brexit referendum of June 2016 which led the departure of David Cameron and triggered an ugly leadership battle among senior Tory leaders.
May knows it very well, and she remained loyal to the idea of a strong Brexit, which brought her the premiership. She stuck to her conviction: “Brexit means Brexit”, without bothering about its socio-economic impact on the island. And she went on opposing any chance of another referendum as that could very well be the end of her political career. Britons voted for Brexit in June 2016, clearly without proper understanding of its consequences.
But, immediately after that, in the post-referendum Britain, the support favouring ‘Leave’ dipped, way below the 50 per cent mark. Prior to the original departure date of 29 March, 2019, the average level of support (excluding the Don’t Knows) was Remain 54 per cent, Leave 46 per cent. And during the whole period, May struggled to execute a graceful Brexit in a country where the idea was possibly supported by a minority for a major part of her tenure. Moreover, as many as 80 per cent of Leave voters and 85 per cent of the Remain voters now believe that her Brexit negotiations were poor. So, people’s verdict on May’s performance as even a Brexit officer-in-charge is not positive.
There are very few takers for her words now: “As we leave the EU we will forge a new, bold, positive role for ourselves in the world.” May is now facing serious challenge from activists within her Party. But she seems certain to last longer in office than Gordon Brown – she will overtake Brown on 30 May. Much of the present crisis has been created by May herself. She called an unnecessary snap election in 2017, which resulted in the loss of her majority. Since then she had relied on a small, radical, Protestant Northern Irish political party, and the extreme anti-European Tory faction.
It was certainly a blunder to trigger Article 50, the legal mechanism for leaving the EU, before making a concrete pathway. However, triggering Article 50 set a two-year clock ticking and has put the UK on a sharp deadline which presumably rendered extra pressure. What’s more interesting is that Britons voted only for ‘Leave’; the nature of the divorce was not outlined in the referendum. Thus, by looking at the slender margin of the referendum, May could decide to stay within the single market, the pan-European freetrade zone, or at least within a customs union.
However, May created additional problems by choosing to leave both the single market and the free-trade zone. And it triggered the bitter problem regarding the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Again, May was reluctant to take the Opposition Labour Party into confidence, and she always kept her options secret. In the illustrious list of British PMs, May’s tenure will not be a bright moment, for sure.
Columnist Matthew Parris has described her as ‘the Death Star of modern British politics’. Too harsh, undoubtedly, and a bit unjust maybe. After all, she is heading the British government in an unprecedented national crisis, and a defining moment in the history of the country. Let’s not render responsibility of the mistake that the British people committed in June 2016 on May. In Vincent Pluchet’s novel ‘Brexit XXL’, in the backdrop of 2022, the next election year, Prime Minister Tracy Meller herself was starting to doubt the wisdom of her decision regarding Brexit.
Well, fictional Tracy Meller could but Theresa May might not get a chance for regrets. She might very well be the second prime minister to be victim of the dystopia called Brexit.
(The writer is Professor, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata)