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Losing by Winning

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Theresa May is the master of disaster and the mistress of distress. These are not compliments but indices of the sustained malfunctioning of the British political system and of a Conservative party unable to resolve its deep ambivalence towards the European Union. No British prime minister has survived through such adversity—and to so little positive effect.

For a few sweet hours this week, hopes were raised that the long agony of May’s premiership was about to end. The knife went in some time on the evening of December 11. While May was returning from the continent after another fruitless and humiliating attempt to revive her Brexit deal, one of her MPs delivered a letter of no confidence to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, which regulates the disordered inner life of the parliamentary Conservatives. Sir Graham, realizing that the tally of letters had passed the 48 required to trigger a leadership contest, informed May.

Stabbed in the back, May prepared to be stabbed in the front in the vote the next day. With the misplaced sense of duty and the pedestrian adherence to procedure that have defined her sorry tenure, she proclaimed her determination to fight it out. The analogies to Julius Caesar are purely procedural, for May is a leader who fails to lead, a contriver of base compromises and gratuitous defeats, and the deliverer of the Brexit deal that is not.

When the votes in the no-confidence motion were counted on the evening of December 12, it emerged that, in defiance of reason and the national interest, May had won by 200 votes to 117. Her survival continues a personal winning streak that is a losing streak for her party and country. This was a typical May victory—demoralizing even for the winners.

In 1990, Margaret Thatcher won 204 votes in the first round of the Conservative leadership ballot. She accepted that she had lost her party’s trust and resigned. In 1995, John Major gambled that winning 218 votes in the first round of a leadership ballot was good enough. He managed to retain control of the party and the premiership, but his victory won him just two more years in power, whereupon Tony Blair led a revived........

© The Weekly Standard