British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Reuters
British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Reuters

Like her predecessor, British Prime Minister Theresa May gambled on a vote and it backfired spectacularly, resulting in significant destabilization to her personal position, her Conservative party and her country.

Just a year ago, mainly to settle his party’s long-standing feuds over Britain’s membership in the European Union, David Cameron called a referendum on Europe. Though he campaigned vehemently for the UK to remain in the regional bloc, and all polls and pundits overwhelmingly predicted a Remain victory, after a bitter campaign waged with lies and delusional promises, the British electorate voted to leave.

The stunning Brexit vote divided the United Kingdom, caused a political crisis and dislodged Cameron as party leader and prime minister, even though the then 49-year-old had just won a majority for his Tory party – the first since 1992 – a year earlier.

May, who succeeded Cameron via a party leadership contest, volunteered for a snap election in a bid to gain her own mandate and increase her party’s slim majority, enabling the 60-year-old to secure a strong position for Brexit negotiations.

When she called the election, on April 18, with an over 20-point lead in the polls, her Tory party was set for a huge landslide – predicted to gain up to 50 or even 100 more seats.

However, not only did she fail to extend the 17-seat majority inherited from Cameron, she ruinously lost it.

Like Cameron, May called an election she didn’t have to. Like her predecessor, she initiated it because she was seemingly assured of a big victory. Like him, she was punished for her hubris. However, unlike Cameron, who was forced to announce his resignation within hours after last June’s Brexit vote, May remains in office, though her days in Downing Street do appear to be numbered. George Osborne, a former chancellor under Cameron and sacked by May last July, branded her “a dead woman walking”, saying “the only question is how long she remains on death row”.

Whether she will be ousted, as Osborne, who is now the editor of the London-based Evening Standard newspaper, suggested, remains to be seen in the coming weeks or months. What is sure is that even if she can cling on, her authority is enormously diminished and her party’s position hugely weakened.

Like Cameron, May gambled on the future of the UK, and now the world’s fifth-largest economy and one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council is paying a heavy price for the failed gamble.

If the Brexit referendum on June 23 last year divided Britain, plunging it into political mayhem with an uncertain economic prospect outside the EU, last Thursday’s snap election compounded such division, instability and uncertainty.

The country, which was once so sure about its destiny and renowned abroad for its stability, is now in jeopardy politically and economically.

Next week, it is entering formal Brexit talks, regarded as its most important negotiations since the end of War World II. Yet, with a prime minister discredited and shattered after the disastrous election, Britain does not have strong and stable leadership. Worse still, it lacks not only a secure government but also a clear negotiating position that commands a consensus among its political parties, let alone its electorate.

Economically, according to official EU figures released on the day the UK went to the polls, the British economy was the worst performer in the EU in the opening months of 2017. Its economic growth was just 0.2% in the first three months of this year, whereas the growth for the whole of the EU – as well as the eurozone – was 0.6% in the same period.

What’s more, at a time when the UK is facing a political upheaval and the British government is heading into the critical Brexit talks with a weakened and disunited position, the EU and its two key pillars, Germany and France, are in a very united, strong and upbeat mood. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is on course to secure a fourth term and France’s newly elected and pro-EU President Emmanuel Macron is poised to record a huge parliamentary majority in the country’s legislative elections.

If they really wish to overcome the current turbulence and strike a good deal with the EU, which is vital for their country’s stability and prosperity, it is incumbent on May, the Conservatives and other political leaders and parties to put aside their narrow interests and work together.

For that to happen, first and foremost, if she is still prime minister, May must change her rigid, inflexible and authoritarian leadership style, and especially her fatuous “no deal is better than a bad deal” stance.

If not, the political deadlock will gravely prolong and the Brexit talks will end up with a bad deal or no deal at all. All of this will further divide, destabilize and deteriorate the nation of 65 million.

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.