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Brexit stage left: Why Theresa May's run as PM ended in tears

The astonishingly cynical and astonishingly successful 19th-century French statesman Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand — foreign minister under Napoleon and prime minister under Napoleon's arch-enemy, Louis XVIII – once described his approach as "surtout, point de zèle." Above all, no zeal.Theresa May was nothing if not zealous. The U.K. prime minister wore zeal like a badge of honour as she doggedly pursued her goal of separating Britain from the European Union in a deal that her party and her parliament kept rejecting.In the end, she announced her resignation on Friday in tears. Zeal, as Talleyrand might have told her, was not the tool to deliver Brexit.It's hard to remember, three years on, how much room May had to manoeuvre when she became prime minister. The Brexit referendum result in 2016 hit the British political class like a thunderbolt. Few knew how to react.May, whose Conservatives had a parliamentary majority, had a virtually free hand. She could have consulted her colleagues and the opposition, could have taken her time, could have crafted a plan for a "soft Brexit" that would have commanded an even larger majority.She did none of that. There was no consultation, no time-wasting and no interest in a soft Brexit. The markers she quickly laid down were rigid — notably, her insistence on strict control of immigration, even if it meant excluding EU citizens, and her refusal to join a customs union with the EU.Then, nine months into her premiership, she set the clock running on negotiations. They would last just two years.Having done that, she promptly called a snap election – and lost her parliamentary majority.'No principles, only events'Let us again consult the prince of cynicism, Talleyrand, who defined politics this way: "There are no principles, only events."For May, the first event was the greatest — the loss of her control of parliament. There were many others. One of her principles in negotiating with the EU was that the 27 remaining countries of the union wouldn't hold together, and that she and her government would be able to split them and negotiate a sweet deal.May was home secretary under Prime Minister David Cameron, right, and went on to replace him after his resignation in the wake of the Brexit referendum result in 2016. (Carl Court/Getty)In the event, the EU lined up its tanks in a row. They fired in unison, and kept firing until May's government was forced to retreat in confusion.More events served to undermine her. She cobbled a deal together that the EU would accept and locked her cabinet in her Chequers retreat until they all agreed to it. Their agreement lasted two days, and then came the thunderous resignations — first, of her own Brexit minister, David Davis, and then of the clownish but popular foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. Who ...Read more

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