Politics 19 November 2018 | 13:32

Theresa May is hanging from the edge of a glass cliff

19 November 2018 13:32

The EU Withdrawal Deal was finally published on Thursday. Since then, the Cabinet has gone into meltdown, with the press bloodthirsty for more relentless resignations, the public increasingly outraged about the future direction of the UK. The Brexiters and People’s Vote supporters have joined in some form of unholy matrimony against the 585-page document.

Yet, despite the dismal future that the agreement presents, I have been struck by an overwhelming and unexpected sympathy for Theresa May over the weekend. I’ve been trying to unpick precisely why I feel quite so awful for a woman whom I strongly disagree with, and who has made some very questionable decisions during her time in politics. It runs deeper than any ideological disagreement. I hold great sympathy for a woman who stepped into the breach in July 2016 when nobody else would. I feel sympathy for a woman who took the reins after the man who led us into this chaos resigned, because of the result of a referendum he should not have called in the first place.

Depressingly, this is not a unique scenario. It is a perfect case study of the glass cliff phenomenon that happens the world over. Research time and again shows that women often find themselves in leadership positions at crisis points. This is partly due to their stereotypically more ‘collaborative’ leadership style, which is perceived to be important when managing people in stressful situations. But it is also a result of the fact that prejudice against women means that they are often considered to ‘more expendable’, and therefore act as scapegoats for organisational failure. I have to wonder whether the level of ridicule and doubt being thrown at the Prime Minister and her deal would be different if we had a male leading the country.

If the rumour that Michael Gove rejected the offer of Brexit Secretary because he wasn’t allowed to have ‘another go at the deal’ is true, then perhaps this too is telling. Do men in her party believe they could have done better? And is this rooted in the ingrained prejudice that women do not possess the stereotypically ‘male’ leadership qualities, such as ‘strength’, to secure a good deal?

The main men of Brexit – David Davis, Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab – have all abandoned their leadership positions, but still the blame is placed upon May as an individual. When a female is in a position of leadership and something fails, she is more likely to be held accountable. But when a male is in a similar position, people are far more likely to blame extraneous variables; factors outside of their control.

As a woman, not only is Theresa May held to a higher standard than her male counterparts – ridiculed for dancing, curtsying, her appearance – but she also has to turnaround an impossible situation that her male counterparts created and then escaped from. And now, with a leadership challenge looking very likely, her male peers are crawling back into the limelight to act as Lord and Saviour.

Regardless of the layers of prejudice that may be contributing to the derision and criticism directed at May, we cannot escape the fact that, perhaps through no fault of her own, the agreement the Prime Minister has come back with is still a million miles away from the promises of 2016 – and a million more away from appeasing the divided British public.

Donald Tusk himself confirmed that Brexit was always a lose-lose situation. The Northern Irish and indeed the Democratic Unionist Party are unhappy with Northern Ireland being tied closer to the EU than the rest of the UK. It’s too ‘soft’ for the European Research Group, adamant that the only Brexit that is worth doing is one that cuts off all ties to Europe. Too hard, she loses any potential support from her moderate Conservative and Labour colleagues.

We are at an impasse. There is surely then only one way forward. And that way forward is to have a People’s Vote on the final terms of the Brexit deal. Let’s put the final deal, in all its detail and glory, back in front of the British public, with the option to either accept it, go for no-deal, or no-Brexit. Let’s take the decision away from the squabbling politicians, all trying to capitalise on each other’s failures, and put it back to the people who will be affected by this decision most acutely. It’s time to take back control of our future by having the final say.