Theresa May. Picture: REUTERS
Theresa May. Picture: REUTERS

With all the intrigue in our own politics, it is understandable that events in the UK have taken a backseat.

While we weren’t looking, the Conservative Party’s divisions over Europe consumed yet another prime minister, with potentially dire consequences for the UK and countries that do business with it.

Theresa May, who became prime minister almost by accident when the original 2016 vote in favour of Brexit led to David Cameron’s departure, was never up to the job.

Untangling Britain from a more than 40-year economic and legal relationship with its biggest trading partner required skills she just didn’t have. May was no Nelson Mandela, so she didn’t have the ability to compromise with adversaries, or the political courage to neutralise the radicals in her own party.

Instead, she spent years ignoring the 48% of the population who voted to stay in the EU, seemingly oblivious to the simple fact that the country didn’t vote for the sort of departure that the Brexit fanatics in her party, led by Boris Johnson, demanded.

She misconstrued her role, imagining it to be managing divisions within the Conservative Party, rather than serving the country as a whole, so she adopted red lines that constrained her ability to negotiate with the EU.

Perhaps they cheered because, like everyone else, they knew Theresa May was setting herself up for a big fall.

In one notable speech in 2017, she ruled out participation in the single market and the customs union. That speech, full of bravado and triumphalism, ignored warnings that she had set herself an impossible goal. For one thing, how could she, in the absence of a customs arrangement, prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic?

Still, the extremists cheered her empty rhetoric about how “no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain”. 

Perhaps they cheered because, like everyone else, they knew May was setting herself up for a big fall. And when that time came, they would be there, ready to pounce and grab power for themselves. 

Inevitably, when serious negotiations with the EU started, she could no longer defy reality. One by one, her so-called red lines fell by the wayside and she gave in on almost all the major points. Just as inevitably, the extremists on her side, having been indulged for almost three years, were in no mood to compromise and the exit deal she had agreed with the EU was roundly rejected.

May’s belated attempt to strike a deal with the opposition yielded yet more failure. So, last week, she announced that she would resign in early June.

Since then, the UK took part in elections for the European parliament, where her party got thumped — getting less than 10%.

Not surprisingly, Johnson decided to interpret the result as voters punishing the government for not delivering Brexit, even though the anti-Brexit parties got the most votes. 

In Scotland, the SNP, which is passionately pro-EU, won comfortably. Liberal Democrats, who’ve found a niche themselves as an anti-Brexit party, came second nationally. Their share, combined with that of the Greens, exceeded that of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. 

The Guardian newspaper’s calculations showed that parties which supported the “remain” position got 40% of the vote, compared to 35% for those who favoured a “hard Brexit”. A caveat is that this isn’t a scientific analysis, since it didn’t include Labour and Tory voters, who can be found on both sides of the divide.

Either way, what is clear is that a new Tory leader who tries to force a no-deal Brexit will do so without a mandate. And this could condemn their party to electoral oblivion. 

That’s not to say it won’t happen. If anything, this remains the most realistic outcome because as things stand, the legal position is that the UK will crash out of the EU on October 31.

For SA, the interest is more than academic. The EU is our biggest trading partner and within that, the UK is the second largest. 

Ahead of our own elections drama, ministers were working on a plan to cushion our industries in the event of a hard Brexit. It’s time to get back to work on those.