I am an American who has followed Brexit for a while and have a view that I suspect is wrong and would appreciate an informed correction.

From the outside it seems that Theresa May, a conservative who initially opposed Brexit, has tried to responsibly work towards implementing the results of the referendum. To me it seems that the difficulty is that many people wanted outcomes that were irreconcilable, perhaps based on different (or poor) information, anger, political views or simply self-interest. I am not aware of any argument that explains how she could have gotten a lot better deal from the EU.

On the other hand, it seems to me that many members of her cabinet and party ranged from not very competent to not very honest in their dealings with the issue. In short, she seemed to be "the only adult in the room" at times, working hard on a task that might well be impossible. However, the impression I get from British media is that Britons hold her in low regard.

I am not concerned with the arguments for or against Brexit in this question, or what is its best form. I would like to learn what, given the situation, she could have done better to resolve Brexit given that she was committed to implement the results of the referendum.

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    How do you define "valid"?
    – user4012
    Jan 21, 2019 at 0:43
  • It's also not clear how you define better. You said her cabinet seemed to act incompetently but to judge that you need to know what they tried to achieve. That, in essence, is the crux to understanding brexit: there are many different agendas. As such, it's impossible to judge anyone on the matter unless you are looking at it from a predefined view point. To do that, you could state by what 'should' come out of brexit and then you can see if actions taken by various actor have helped that position or not.
    – JJJ
    Jan 21, 2019 at 1:14
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    By "valid" I mean a criticism not based on whether Brexit is good or bad, but on whether her political strategies, her compromises (or lack of compromises), her stated positions were consonant with the goals of getting a negotiated Brexit. An example of a valid criticism might be that she was hypocritical and inconsistent on X, that she should have been aware of Y, or that she could have negotiated Z. Jan 21, 2019 at 2:42
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    It's not really clear what her goals are specifically. It's not like Trump who said he'd build a wall and we can see if it's been built or not. Theresa May promised to get the best possible deal but it's almost impossible to judge her actions without knowing specifics of 'the best possible deal'. The best possible deal for her may be different from what you deem the best and her party members (even (ex-)cabinet members) may hold even different views on that.
    – JJJ
    Jan 21, 2019 at 2:53
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    To add to that. Once there is a deal, it's hard to judge its merits. For example, a deal can be great for the UK but not for the EU (e.g. Chequers), this deal won't get accepted. A deal can be acceptable for May and for the EU but not for parliament, again, not accepted. A good deal requires that it has a sufficient majority among those that can block it. Once there is such a deal (this is not the case yet), we cannot judge it because we don't know if there could be a different deal that is also accepted by all those required but is better for the UK.
    – JJJ
    Jan 21, 2019 at 2:57

2 Answers 2


Let's take the most frequent criticisms of Theresa May and look at their "validity" (not based on whether Brexit is good or bad, but on whether her actions were consonant with the goals of getting a negotiated Brexit). Validity is difficult to estimate even under this definition. There are chances and risks attached to almost every of Theresa May's actions and their potential impact is impossible to access with certainty. The overall judgment on how severe Theresa May's faults may have been must remain with the reader.

  • Red lines were drawn up early, for example in the Lancaster House speech in January 2017. These red lines were compatible with the hard Brexit fraction of the Tory MPs but not with with the remaining leaning fraction of the Tories and not with most of the opposition either. While strengthening the negotiation position in some regard it might have limited the room for compromise and negotiating alternative deals (Norway style EFTA, ..).
  • She called for a snap election in March 2017 and lost her parliamentary majority in it in June 2017 and had to enter a tolerance and support agreement with the DUP party. With hindsight that seems like a big mistake. The negotiation phase and the votes in the Parliament would surely have gone differently, hadn't she called that election. Also by invoking Article 50 already in March 2017, she lost some time because of the election.
  • She appointed three Brexit secretaries (David Davies, Dominic Raab, Stephen Barclay) that conducted negotiations with the EU, but the first two of them resigned during that time. That surely didn't help the negotiations. Maybe she could have found candidates for the job who were more in line with her own thinking.
  • She didn't have the Irish border problem on screen until December 2017 when she first agreed on the backstop solution. She insisted for a very long time on hitherto unknown technology to keep the Irish-Northern Irish border open. That idea was dismissed later in the negotiations. That might have wasted some time and showed a lack of recognizing the importance of the Irish border problem which might have made the negotiations more difficult and longer than necessary.
  • She did not publish a UK position on the future EU-UK relations until July 2018, which then still insisted on lots of yet unknown technological mechanisms. To be fair, the future relationship is not legal binding part of the withdrawal agreement, but MPs surely take that into account when deciding to vote on the negotiated Brexit now.
  • She (more precisely a minister of HM government) was found to have hold the Parliament in contempt by not publishing the full legal advice of the attorney general on the negotiated withdrawal agreement. It was finally published. This might not have gone well with the MPs.
  • She ran down the clock on Brexit for five weeks between December 2018 and January 2019 on the "meaningful vote" with little to no re-negotiation results with the EU and most probably also little to no change in the opinions of the MPs. However, that move has severely limited preparation time for another potential snap election or another referendum. That surely increased the risk of a no-deal.
  • She basically pitches the negotiated withdrawal agreement against a non-negotiated no deal Brexit, insisting on these two being the only two viable options and acting accordingly in Parliament. While this surely increases the chances for the negotiated withdrawal agreement to be passed, it also increases the chances of an unordered Brexit. Cross-party compromises are not really actively sought by her (judging by official announcements).
  • She further divided (didn't heal) Britain by aiming for a rather hard Brexit when the referendum was rather even with a comparably small majority for leave. Her interpretation is that the referendum result means being able to strike trade negotiations as freely as possible while the referendum only asked for any kind of Brexit. Aiming for a softer Brexit might have increased the chances of a negotiated Brexit considerably, however, might also have required cross party support on that issue.
  • As of January 21st, 2019 she doesn't seem to have a plan B, although after the rejection of her negotiated deal in the meaningful vote she is supposed to come back with an alternative. Will she be willing and capable of coming up with a version of Brexit that can find a majority in Parliament and can get the consent of the EU at the same time? Nobody knows so far. While she depends on the MPs and the EU on that issue, one can surely ask if she is the right person for finding that solution under the time constraint that on March 29th 2019 the UK is supposed to leave the EU (there might be an exception possible, but nevertheless there is not much time to find compromises now and that may have been part of her strategy). At the least it is high-stakes gambling but that is also nothing unusual in politics.
  • Finally, there were at times some some not very convincing statements by her like "what we should be looking for is a red, white and blue Brexit" in December 2016 which sounded rather nonsensical at the time.

To summarize: The validity of the criticisms of Theresa May's actions cannot be determined unequivocally but one can say that without calling for a snap election (leaving Tories with a majority in Parliament) and with more emphasis on solving the Irish border issue the chances for a negotiated Brexit that already passed Parliament may have been higher. An alternative might have been aiming for a softer Brexit but that would have required cross-party support the likelihood of working of which is difficult to access.

P.S.: It's the end of June 2019 and while Theresa May has official declared to step down, I think I can add a little. Indeed she presented the negotiated withdrawal agreement as the only viable option but it was rejected in the UK Parliament three times in a row. UK Parliamentary procedure is actually not to repeatedly vote on the same issues within the same session. UK Parliament however voted for an extension and after that extension took place May did talk with the biggest opposition party (Labour). These talks broke down later, when she announced her early resignation following pressure in her own party. With her attempts to renegotiate the Irish backstop with the EU, get her deal through the Parliament and also negotiating with Labour on a cross-party solution, one could say that at least in 2019 she did all one can do to get a Brexit solution that's not just no-deal. Indeed her potential successors as PMs do not seem to offer different ideas apart from more strongly emphasizing the possibility of a so called no-deal Brexit. Since the end of 2018, the matter is mostly in the hands of the UK Parliament, who so far rejected any kind of Brexit that was offered to it. The future will show, what kind of Brexit (or no Brexit) was actually possible.

  • 3
    This is a reasonable summary of the high points of criticism, though it does leave the reader to judge the validity of those criticism themselves. Personally I think this is a good answer, but might generate some controversy considering the recent discussion over the Shutdown blame question.
    – Jontia
    Jan 21, 2019 at 11:08
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    @Jontia I think the judgment must ultimately be left to the reader. Validity of arguments is subjective. I can only deliver a list of potentially valid criticisms and deliver arguments for and against their validity. Addition to the answer to highlight that. Jan 21, 2019 at 12:18
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    Thank you. I was unaware of some of these issues, and you framed the ones I did know about in a more clear context. Jan 21, 2019 at 15:12
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    @ouflak Sure there are more criticisms of Theresa May but this question was about how she approached Brexit. Putting a lot of time and effort into Brexit is rather good, not bad, if you restrict yourself to Brexit. Jan 23, 2019 at 15:28
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    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… That's 21 trips to Brussels alone. Eight more to Germany.
    – ouflak
    Jan 23, 2019 at 16:14

May's problems mostly stem from her inflexibility and unwillingness to cooperate or listen to others.

Early on in the process May set out certain "red lines", things she would not compromise on. Many of them were not things that were on the ballot paper or even contradicted things said by the main Leave campaigns, such as leaving the single market. Those red lines immediately limited the kind of deal she could get, as was pointed out to her very early on by Barnier in this slide:

Barnier slide on red lines

Source: European Commission - Slide presented by Michel Barnier, European Commission Chief Negotiator, to the Heads of State and Government at the European Council (Article 50) on 15 December 2017

Furthermore, her negotiating position seemed to be entirely unrealistic. A page carried by Conservative MP Mark Field accidentally revealed the infamous "cake and eat it" strategy. She also failed to clearly state what she actually wanted, only talking literal nonsense like "brexit means brexit" for a year and a half.

In June of 2017, after triggering the Article 50 withdrawal process and starting the 2 year clock on negotiations, she called a general election. That decision was critical mistake. She expected to win easily against a weak opposition and gain a large majority, which would have allowed her to push her brexit deal through even without support from the hard liners in her own party. Instead, she lost her majority and severely weakened her position, having to rely on the Democratic Unionist Party for support and making herself beholden to her back-benchers (minor MPs who normally have little power or influence).

As a direct result of these failings she has ended up in her current position, unable to get her deal accepted by parliament and unable to make any significant changes that make build support for it. She again demonstrated her poor negotiating and cooperating skills by failing in her stated objective of getting other parties on board.

As for the other members of her cabinet, they are appointed by her. Unfortunately after the general election disaster she was so weak that she was forced to appoint people she didn't really want to keep the rest of her party happy, in particular hard line brexiteers like Boris Johnson and incompetents like Michael Gove who were happy to openly criticise her.

In summary her problems are mostly self-inflicted. She turned a difficult problem into an unsolvable one due to her own blunders.

  • Thank you. I did not understand that in a parliamentary system you can be forced into appointing cabinet members who are unsupportive. This helps me better appreciate why her cabinet members could be so disruptive. Jan 22, 2019 at 5:44
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    @KieranMullen I guess it's similar to how a president of the US might be forced to make appointments he doesn't really want in order to get the support of Congress.
    – user
    Jan 22, 2019 at 12:50
  • +1. Would you mind sourcing the image? I'm just wondering, if this is some sort of official material from the EU Commission, like the logo suggests ...
    – s1lv3r
    Jan 22, 2019 at 15:15
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    ec.europa.eu/commission/publications/… It's an official EU publication.
    – user
    Jan 22, 2019 at 15:59
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    @user: The only thing I remember is how much I laughed out loud, when I first read that Boris was going to be Foreign Secretary. I tried to picture what the head scratcher it must have been in Brussels. Was she trolling? Doing it on purpose to have him fix the mess he created? Incompetence as you suggest? I honestly don't know. :D May 23, 2019 at 13:34

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